The Wisconsin Wastewater Surveillance Program has been named a National Center of Excellence for Wastewater Surveillance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The Wisconsin Wastewater Surveillance Program (WWSP) is a partnership between the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene at UW-Madison, and UW-Milwaukee.
It joins just three other Centers of Excellence in the country that are part of the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System.
The WWSP was a pioneer during the COVID-19 pandemic in developing and applying wastewater-based surveillance for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Using techniques they spent months fine-tuning, the researchers, including UWM’s Sandra McLellan, devised methods of extracting genetic traces of the disease from sewage samples.
McLellan, a professor at the School of Freshwater Sciences, said the Wisconsin group devised a standard method of detecting SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater where none existed before.
Wastewater surveillance captures the presence and amounts of pathogens shed by people, both with and without symptoms. Measuring the pathogen levels in untreated wastewater at a treatment facility over time provides a cost-efficient way of determining if infections are increasing or decreasing in the community served by the treatment facility.
“Not only can wastewater reflect what is happening in the community, we have found this program can provide an advanced warning for new surges or variants of COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases,” McLellan said. “This work is important to the state of Wisconsin as individual testing in an outbreak drops off.”
As a Center of Excellence, the WWSP will serve as subject matter experts to provide training, consultation services and resources to public health agencies and affiliated laboratories in both starting surveillance programs and advancing existing monitoring programs.
“Critical in the effort has been our partners at the wastewater agencies,” McLellan said. “Both the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewage District and NEW Water, the brand of the Green Bay Metropolitan Sewerage District, were early partners, helping us to establish our surveillance program. And they will be providing expertise to our new center.”
The WWSP will provide critical support to the National Wastewater Surveillance System in evaluating and validating new wastewater-based methods for other infectious diseases and drug-resistant organisms.
Launched in September 2020, the WWSP monitored SARS-CoV-2 levels in wastewater from more than 70 treatment facilities across Wisconsin.
Currently, the WWSP monitors wastewater from nearly 50 treatment facilities for SARS-CoV-2 levels and a subset of facilities for influenza viruses and RSV.
McLellan is leading a project to create a replicable model for launching wastewater surveillance systems so that more cities can use this method of managing public health crises.
SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance data can be found on the DHS website, and genetic sequencing data is available on the Wisconsin State Laboratory of Hygiene’s wastewater genomic dashboard.