Science & Tech Spotlight: Wastewater Surveillance

Why This Matters

Wastewater surveillance can be an productive way to detect local community-degree ailment outbreaks and other health threats. It has the prospective to recognize a COVID-19 outbreak 1 to 2 months sooner than scientific tests and let for a a lot more fast public well being response. On the other hand, the deficiency of countrywide coordination and standardized solutions pose difficulties to wider adoption.

The Science

What is it? Wastewater surveillance, also acknowledged as wastewater-primarily based epidemiology, is the checking of pathogens (e.g., viruses), as nicely as prescribed drugs and poisonous or other chemical compounds by screening sewage (see fig. 1). General public well being officers can use this tactic to keep track of for outbreaks, establish threats (e.g., antibiotic-resistant microbes), and, in response, assistance the mobilization of resources.

Figure 1. Works by using of wastewater tests.

Pathogens and chemicals can enter sewer units via human squander. Wastewater surveillance programs gather sewage samples from these methods and therapy vegetation and send out them to laboratories for screening. Officials can use examination facts, for instance, to assess whether there is a viral outbreak or growing drug use and then decide what steps to choose to protect public health. These steps may possibly incorporate enhanced clinical screening in an space, or alerting community clinics and hospitals to put together for an raise in sufferers.

How is it utilized? For a lot of many years, the U.S. and other international locations have utilised wastewater surveillance to keep an eye on for pathogen and chemical levels in their communities. Australia, for example, is working with a wastewater surveillance program to keep track of the quantities of illicit drug use in the population to estimate the usefulness of legislation enforcement attempts to seize prescription drugs. 

In the U.S., federal and regional governments, universities, and organizations have not long ago improved investments in wastewater surveillance in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of February 2022, wellness departments in 43 jurisdictions, representing about 16 p.c of the U.S. populace, ended up employing cash dispersed by the Facilities for Ailment Control and Avoidance (CDC) to assist wastewater surveillance attempts. The CDC operates with these 43 jurisdictions to gather knowledge that track SARS-CoV-2 concentrations and make these knowledge publically obtainable by means of its Nationwide Wastewater Surveillance Program (NWSS) site. Approximately 80 percent of the U.S. population is served by municipal sewer units that could be monitored by means of these kinds of packages.

Wastewater surveillance can serve many functions (see fig. 2). For instance, it can present an early warning for infectious sickness outbreaks so a local community can acquire action. It can detect minimal amounts of SARS-CoV-2 in human squander in advance of signs and symptoms surface, as early as 1 to 2 weeks right before an infected person may perhaps find clinical testing. It can also detect SARS-CoV-2 from asymptomatic people today who make up about 70 % of cases and may possibly not find scientific tests.

Figure 2. Wastewater surveillance rewards throughout various populace sizes.

Some U.S. universities have employed wastewater surveillance to recognize structures, such as dormitories, with probably high or increasing an infection costs amongst student inhabitants and subsequently concentrate on medical testing and quarantine endeavours to avert outbreaks on campus. For example, in the tumble of 2020, just one university employed wastewater surveillance to detect virtually 85 p.c of COVID-19 conditions that had been later verified by way of medical screening.

What are some gaps? Wastewater surveillance might have monumental prospective as a community well being software, but some features of the science might have to have additional improvement. For illustration, rainwater or industrial discharge can dilute wastewater samples, though contaminants this sort of as animal waste can compromise sample origin or high-quality. In January 2021, for instance, researchers discovered a SARS-CoV-2 mutation in New York City wastewater, perhaps signifying a variant, but are however hoping to ascertain regardless of whether it has been circulating in people.

Furthermore, the likely price-savings from wastewater surveillance are unclear. At the very least just one review suggests that wastewater surveillance could help save nations thousands and thousands to billions in U.S. bucks, based on numerous nation-specific things. Having said that, the normal deficiency of value-reward analyses helps make it tricky to ascertain how and when to use it. 

What are some issues? Some scientists contend that the U.S. could reward from a standardized method to wastewater surveillance. For case in point, testing for different SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater is not a normal follow. Some state overall health departments are accomplishing this, but the CDC is not employing the NWSS to monitor variants observed in wastewater. Additional, the deficiency of a standardized solution complicates endeavours to combination, interpret, and assess information across sites and create substantial-scale community health interventions.

Some scientists advise increasing the NWSS past SARS-CoV-2 to establish other pathogens and chemicals. For case in point, screening for substances, this kind of as opioids, in wastewater involves unique processes than tests for pathogens. A process like NWSS could be developed to discover a variety of health threats.

At last, wastewater surveillance raises privateness and moral considerations for the reason that wastewater contains not only a pathogen’s genetic knowledge that allow community overall health officials to recognize the pathogen, but also human genetic info that could most likely be misused. Additionally, communities may well be stigmatized if wastewater surveillance information show pathogen spread or illicit drug use.


  • More rapidly community wellbeing reaction. Wellness care companies and public health and fitness officers can use wastewater surveillance as an early warning for overall health threats, and use it alongside with other applications to predict, get ready for, and initiate a much more immediate reaction to infectious sickness outbreaks and other wellbeing threats.
  • Neighborhood concentrate. Regional testing could present an chance to monitor and respond to pathogen spread and drug use, particularly in spots with constrained access to tests or wellbeing treatment.


  • Affordability. Wastewater surveillance can be especially handy when scientific testing is source constrained, but it is tough to quantify the price due to a lack of cost-advantage analyses.
  • Coordination and standardization. Solutions for sample selection, investigation, and details sharing are not now standardized, making it tricky to compare web sites and emphasis mitigation efforts.
  • Sample integrity. Contaminants this sort of as animal squander can compromise sample high-quality, and the origin of detected pathogens and chemical substances may perhaps not usually be very clear.
  • Privateness. Applying wastewater info could pose privateness issues when linked with identifiable facts, specially in smaller communities.

Policy Context and Thoughts

  • What ways could help to standardize wastewater surveillance systems in the U.S.?
  • What can be performed to boost expense-profit analyses of popular wastewater surveillance for public health threats? 
  • If expenses and benefits are favorable, what procedures would most effective facilitate the use of wastewater surveillance info although preserving specific privacy?
  • How can wastewater surveillance information be applied as a community wellbeing resource for policymaking?

For more information and facts, get hold of Karen Howard at 202-512-6888 or [email protected]