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Report Outlines National Plan to Test Wastewater for Harmful Germs

Used during the pandemic in selected locations, the testing system spotted the spread of COVID-19 in local communities

By Physician’s Briefing Staff HealthDay Reporter

FRIDAY, Jan. 20, 2023 (HealthDay News) — The pandemic brought the utility of testing wastewater to gauge viral spread to the fore. Now, experts at the independent National Academies of Sciences (NAS) have issued a report outlining a roadmap for the broader surveillance of Americans’ wastewater.

The report “reviews the usefulness of community-level wastewater surveillance during the pandemic and assesses its potential value for control and prevention of infectious diseases beyond COVID-19,” the NAS said on its website.

Such surveillance — especially the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), set up in 2020 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — ended up being crucial to track the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2). According to the new report, “As of October 2022, the NWSS comprises more than 1,250 sampling sites, covering a population of more than 133 million individuals.”

Besides monitoring SARS-CoV-2, NWSS was also instrumental in tracking the introduction and spread of poliovirus and mpox virus in the United States. All this surveillance was done sporadically, on an as-needed basis. The new NAS report supports a more coordinated, long-range surveillance plan to spot and follow the spread of future outbreaks. Any such effort would require an educated and compliant public, however.

Guidelines need to be developed on the ethical use of data gleaned from wastewater surveillance, which could turn up traces of other substances, including illicit drugs. There should therefore be “a strong firewall to preclude use of data by law enforcement,” NAS noted.

Ideally, an optimally effective wastewater surveillance program would be able to “track multiple pathogens simultaneously,” NAS said, and “pivot quickly to detect emerging pathogens.” It would also build equity into its framework, making sure that all types of communities across the country benefit.

Some “hotspots” for infection spread could be prioritized, of course. “Specific ‘sentinel’ sites should be incorporated, such as large international airports or zoos, to monitor for specific emerging pathogens at their points of entry,” NAS explained. And while much of the pandemic-era surveillance by NWSS was conducted by volunteers, any expanded, permanent national program would need a paid, trained workforce. Already, the CDC has launched two Centers of Excellence focused on wastewater surveillance to help bolster research and training.

The new report was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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