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WEFTEC 2021: Building a Successful Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Program as an Early Warning System for Public Health

Jacobs Global Water Director Susan Moisio will join Jacobs Director of Health Systems Governance Nino Kharaishvili to discuss Jacobs’ experience with using wastewater-based epidemiology testing to monitor disease exposure and prevalence at WEFTEC .

Jacobs is participating in the 94th Annual Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC 2021) being held October 16 – 20 at McCormick Place in Chicago, Illinois.

WEFTEC is the world’s largest wastewater conference, drawing more than 20,000 attendees from around the globe. This is the first major in-person water event since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and we’re a proud Partner-level sponsor.

Download a full list of Jacobs’ participation at WEFTEC 2021

Numerous Jacobs innovators will be presenting in workshops, technical sessions and panels throughout the event, such as Jacobs Global Water Director Susan Moisio, who will join Jacobs Director of Health Systems Governance Nino Kharaishvili to discuss Jacobs’ experience with using wastewater-based epidemiology testing to monitor disease exposure and prevalence at WEFTEC on Oct. 20.

Read more about their presentation, and how we’re leading testing efforts, below.

The COVID-19 pandemic is the most significant world health event in the past 100 years, and public health officials need data about infection prevalence, infection rates, and vaccine distribution. A rapid and reliable system of virus tracking for both current and future outbreaks would help public health officials monitor and contain the spread of the virus.

Tracking COVID-19 in wastewater streams

Wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) can assess exposure, disease and human behavior using biomarkers excreted in urine and feces complementary to clinical testing. On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Jacobs Global Water Director Susan Moisio will join Jacobs Director of Health Systems Governance Nino Kharaishvili to discuss Jacobs’ experience with using WBE testing to monitor disease exposure and prevalence.

Based on the paper “Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Early Warning Systems and Public Health” by Natalia Hogsten, Tim Constantine, Susan Moisio, Nino Kharaishvili and Katie Bollmer, the presentation will detail Jacobs’ efforts to create a rapid and reliable method of tracking the COVID-19 virus in wastewater and challenges and opportunities with this approach.

Wastewater sampling started in 2020

In March of 2020, Jacobs began talking with our clients about WBE sampling. In April of 2020, Jacobs began collecting samples at over 40 wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) nationwide. The presentation will detail how these samples were collected and stored in the laboratories, as well as how the virus was captured in the wastewater filtration stream. The presentation will also address and answer questions such as what was learned from the sampling at the WWTPs? What part of the genetic material survives travel in the sewershed? And, is there a need to move WBE from the treatment plant into the collection system to actively assess community health?  Results from sample analysis

Since the study began, our teams have collected and analyzed more than 100 samples at WWTPs and in collection systems around the country. Initial sample collection and data analysis have allowed the team to identify several challenges in applying WBE for disease-tracking purposes. Jacobs’ specialists dealt with some of these challenges by developing clear sampling guidelines, changing shipping practices and using specific methods of sample concentration and detection. Other challenges are being investigated, including relating virus concentrations to public health data, understanding the effect of water quality and sample location on biomarkers, and connecting the WBE data to the right decision-makers to enable rapid responses to indicators of an outbreak.

Challenges and opportunities with wastewater epidemiology approach

Through the work performed to date, Jacobs has identified the following challenges in using the WBE approach:

  • Developing strong cross-functional relationships between utility officials and the public health agencies is important. Since public health officials are the ultimate end-users of the data, understanding their needs to develop an early warning system is imperative.
  • Several physical conditions affect the accuracy of COVID-19 detention in wastewater, such as wet weather; high concentrations of fats, oils and grease; and significant industrial discharges. Identifying optimal sampling locations will enable more effective wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 and other chemical and biological agents, which will improve public health monitoring.
  • Detecting the virus in wastewater while using grab sampling or composite samplers remains the main challenge. The time required between sample collection, arrival at the lab, sample analysis and how and when public health decision-makers receive this information can affect how rapid the response is to outbreak indicators. Until a remote virus sensing mechanism can be developed, dedicated sampling programs specific to viral tracking should be established.

Developing an early warning system for future outbreaks

The goal of this project is to provide actionable information to government decision-makers on the trend of the virus in their communities by developing early warning systems, rapidly identifying hotspots, and ultimately monitoring improvement in public health.

Jacobs’ teams envision developing an early warning system for the virus similar in methodology as the Water Quality Surveillance and Response System (SRS) that we piloted in conjunction with the EPA’s Water Security Initiative. The SRS brought together multiple streaming data feeds, real time analytics, health and epidemiological data feeds and a geospatial dashboard to provide utilities the capability to quickly detect and respond to water quality issues. Jacobs envisions the ultimate application of WBE analysis through the development of a similar early-warning system for SARS-CoV-2/COVID-19 and other biological threats within a community.

For more on Jacobs’ participation at WEFTEC 2021, click here.

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