Developing a Flexible National Wastewater Surveillance System for COVID-19 and Beyond
Wastewater testing offers a cost-effective strategy for measuring population disease prevalence and health behaviors. For COVID-19, wastewater surveillance addresses testing gaps and provides an early warning for outbreaks. As U.S. federal agencies build a National Wastewater Surveillance System around the pandemic, thinking through ways to develop flexible frameworks for wastewater sampling, testing, and reporting can avoid unnecessary system overhauls for future infectious disease, chronic disease, and drug epidemics.
We discuss ways to transform a historically academic exercise into a tool for epidemic response. We generalize lessons learned by a global network of wastewater researchers around validation and implementation for COVID-19 and opioids while also drawing on our experience with wastewater-based epidemiology in the United States.
Sustainable wastewater surveillance requires coordination between health and safety officials, utilities, labs, and researchers. Adapting sampling frequency, type, and location to threat level, community vulnerability, biomarker properties, and decisions that wastewater data will inform can increase the practical value of the data. Marketplace instabilities, coupled with a fragmented testing landscape due to specialization, may require officials to engage multiple labs to test for known and unknown threats. Government funding can stabilize the market, balancing commercial pressures with public good, and incentivize data sharing. When reporting results, standardizing metrics and contextualizing wastewater data with health resource data can provide insights into a community’s vulnerability and identify strategies to prevent health care systems from being overwhelmed. If wastewater data will inform policy decisions for an entire community, comparing characteristics of the wastewater treatment plant’s service population to those of the larger community can help determine whether the wastewater data are generalizable. Ethical protocols may be needed to protect privacy and avoid stigmatization. With data-driven approaches to sample collection, analysis, and interpretation, officials can use wastewater surveillance for adaptive resource allocation, pandemic management, and program evaluation.