The future of disease tracking is going down the drain — literally. Flushed with success over detecting coronavirus in wastewater, and even specific variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, researchers are now eyeing our collective poop to monitor a wide variety of health threats.
Before the pandemic, wastewater surveillance was a smaller field, primarily focused on testing for drugs or mapping microbial ecosystems. But these researchers were tracking specific health threats in specific places — opioids in parts of Arizona, polio in Israel — and hadn’t quite realized the potential for national or global public health.
Then COVID-19 hit.
The pandemic triggered an “incredible acceleration” of wastewater science, says Adam Gushgari, an environmental engineer who before 2020 worked on testing wastewater for opioids. He now develops a range of wastewater surveillance projects for Eurofins Scientific, a global laboratory testing and research company headquartered in Luxembourg.
A subfield that was once a few handfuls of specialists has grown into more than enough scientists to pack a stadium, he says. And they come from a wide variety of fields — environmental science, analytical chemistry, microbiology, epidemiology and more — all collaborating to track the coronavirus, interpret the data and communicate results to the public. With other methods of monitoring COVID-19 on the decline, wastewater surveillance has become one of health experts’ primary sources for spotting new surges. [Continue reading…]