Most of us, after we flush the toilet, don’t think twice about our body waste. To us, it’s garbage. To epidemiologists, however, wastewater can provide valuable information about public health and help save lives.
History of Wastewater-Based Epidemiology
Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) is the analysis of wastewater to monitor public health. The term first emerged in 2001, when a study proposed the idea of analyzing wastewater in sewage-treatment facilities to determine the collective usage of illegal drugs within a community. At the time, this idea to bridge environmental and social sciences seemed radical, but there were clear advantages. Monitoring wastewater is a nonintrusive and relatively inexpensive way to obtain real-time data that accurately reflects community-wide drug usage while ensuring the anonymity of individuals.
The fall of 2020 was like no other, especially for universities. The COVID-19 pandemic hit most of the world in the spring, forcing schools and businesses to close. For months, people worked from home and schools switched to online classes. When fall came, universities had a difficult decision to make. Do they have students and staff come back to campus for in-person classes? With students living together in close proximity in dormitories, an outbreak could quickly get out of hand. How can the university monitor and control the spread of the virus to ensure everyone’s safety?
This was when Robert Brooks started getting calls. He’s the Technical Director and Operations Manager at Microbac Laboratories in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Microbac is a network of privately owned laboratories that provide testing services for food products, environmental samples and the life science industry. Robert has been in the lab industry for 25 years and has established a reputation for taking on difficult problems. “We really try to go that extra mile to help clients solve their issues. That has made a name for us out there. When people have odd-ball issues, they give us a call cause we’re going to take a look at it from a couple different viewpoints and take a step-by-step approach,” he says.
Today’s blog is written by guest blogger, Sameer Moorji, Director, Applied Markets.
Even as countries are now gradually starting to reopen after lockdown, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Researchers around the world continue to find new ways to monitor, prevent and treat the disease. One new way of monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks relies on a somewhat unexpected source: sewage water.
In March 2020, researchers at the KWR Water Research Institute found the presence of SARS CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples collected near Schiphol airport in Amsterdam and several other sites in Netherlands. The result came within a week after the first case of COVID-19 in the country was confirmed. This study opened the door to the possibility of using wastewater-based epidemiology to determine population-wide infections of COVID-19.
What is Wastewater-based epidemiology?
Wastewater based epidemiology (WBE), or sewershed surveillance, is an approach using analysis of wastewater to identify presence of biologicals or chemicals relevant for public health monitoring. WBE is not new, as wastewater has previously been used to detect the presence of pharmaceutical or industrial waste, drug entities (including opioid abuse), viruses and potential emergence of super bugs. In fact, several countries have been successful in containing Polio and Hepatitis A outbreaks within their geographic locations.
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