Variants, Wastewater-based epidemiology and data sharing

Throughout the pandemic, the water sector has played its regular vital role in ensuring essential services keep running. It has also helped through the emerging area of wastewater surveillance, with the pandemic providing an enormous opportunity for use of Wastewater-based Epidemiology (WBE).

Even before COVID-19, the water industry was used to addressing enteric pathogens including viruses in water supply and sanitation. For this reason, there was a high level of confidence from early on that SARS-CoV-2 did not present a major threat for drinking water supplies. As the pandemic gathered pace, the water science community responded at speed to provide knowledge to help fill in the gaps on the new pathogen, SARS-CoV-2. This does have its own unique characteristics, and the community worked to fill gaps in areas such as risks of faecal-oral transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the survival of the virus in sewage, and potential transmission by aerosols.

Progress was supported by a willingness to cooperate and share data and insights. This willingness was illustrated well by the way the IWA COVID-19 Task Force brought together leading experts in a webinar to share their experiences of using a range of methods to identify and track SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern (VoC) in wastewater in their countries.

This willingness is also very evident in an initiative in which Michigan State University, KWR Water Research Institute, the University of California Merced, Venthic Technologies, and PATH are collaborating to develop the Wastewater SARS Public Health Environmental Response, or W-SPHERE. This is a newly launched global centre for data and for public health use cases on SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. Its mission is to advance environmental surveillance of sewage, informing local and global efforts for monitoring and supporting public health measures to combat COVID-19. Sewage provides a window to view trends in community infection, earlier and more objectively and efficiently than other surveillance systems and has the potential to assist in public health decisions. Initiatives such as this can benefit society greatly and are also a leading example of useful knowledge sharing across countries. Read more in The Source.

Today, the emergence of the omicron variant has shown how COVID-19 still poses a major challenge to societies hoping to bounce back after long months of lockdowns and restrictions. The highly infectious omicron variant, first detected in Southern Africa in November 2021, quickly spread throughout the globe in a matter of weeks, leading countries such as France to report as many as 300,000 new cases in a single day. The US Center for Disease Prevention and Control estimates that the omicron variant went from making 8% of all new cases for the week ending December 11 to approximately 95.4% for the week of December 26 – January 1, showing a very rapid and exponential increase.

Given this speed, it is now more essential than ever for the water sector to be able to share experiences and data across countries, also taking into account that methodologies and data interpretation may need to be adjusted. Experiences will be shared in the webinar taking place on 12 January about the omicron variant (which will also be available on-demand at a later date), and also at the forthcoming LET conference.

The science is expanding dramatically at the interface of new technology, public health and wastewater collection and management.  This means that we have been able to monitor the influx of Delta and now the Omicron variants into the population and this opens the door for understanding much more about community health than ever before.

New research in these areas will be presented at the LET Conference in Reno, United States on 27 March – 2 April 2022. There is a dedicated track on Wastewater-Based Epidemiology, offering a great opportunity to expand your knowledge on this emerging and ever more prominent area of scientific research. I hope to see as many of you there and share experiences and new insights about SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater and WBE.

Early bird registrations are open until 31 January 2022, so grab your tickets now!

Joan B. Rose

Professor and Homer Nowlin Chair in Water Research at Michigan State University