School of Freshwater Sciences professor Sandra McLellan and team are leading a new national effort to track the spread of COVID-19 by monitoring levels of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes the disease. Unlike initiatives that test individuals for the virus, McLellan and her colleagues are searching sewage.
SARS-CoV-2 passes through the body and ends up in wastewater, eventually making it to sewage treatment plants. Monitoring the concentration of the virus in wastewater has the potential to be more comprehensive than individual testing and can signal when a hotspot is developing.
However, deploying sewage surveillance programs for SARS-CoV-2 is complex in practice, requiring not only wastewater sampling and analysis, but also data interpretation and communication of results to public health officials who can act on it.
McLellan’s team joins researchers at New York University Tandon School of Engineering, Stanford University and the University of Notre Dame in a collaboration to create a “startup blueprint” for municipalities that plan to implement SARS-CoV-2 sewage surveillance. It would address dual challenges: implementation of best practices for sample collection, analysis and interpretation, and speedy and appropriate translation and communication of results to public health decision makers.
The goal of the project, which is supported by a $250,000 grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, is to transfer lessons learned to other cities and regions to aid in the deployment of impactful wastewater surveillance programs for COVID-19 and other pathogens that arise as future health threats.
McLellan is implementing a surveillance program that generates SARS-CoV-2 data for the state of Wisconsin, including weekly data at 42 wastewater treatment plants in the most populated counties.
“The pandemic response is constantly evolving, and data and knowledge for decision-making is lacking,” said McLellan, the lead investigator on the grant. “This project will bridge the gap between rapidly evolving research in wastewater surveillance and the public health entities that can use this information to better respond to this threat.”
McLellan said using data from Wisconsin, New York and other projects across the nation would make it possible to develop a national monitoring network, and that the findings from the expert panel and surveillance methods development will also be offered as open source to public health officials and practitioners.