The global COVID-19 pandemic causing considerable human health and economic impacts presents the research community with a unique set of challenges that must be addressed in real time. Critical to managing any pandemic is the accurate estimation of how many people are infected within communities. SARS-CoV-2, the virus causing COVID-19, is excreted in the stool of infected individuals, eventually ending up in the wastewater treatment plant. The presence of SARS-CoV-2 in human waste presents the opportunity to potentially monitor wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 to estimate the number of infections in the community and provide an ‘early warning system’ for future SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks. The goal of this research is to develop methods to monitor for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and to connect these measurements to epidemiology models. In addition, the project team will coordinate wastewater monitoring efforts for SARS-CoV-2 globally. If successful, this research could lead to other similar monitoring efforts for other viral outbreaks and protect the health of the Nation.

SARS-CoV-2 (i.e., 2019-nCoV) is identified as the cause of an outbreak of respiratory illness that is now a global pandemic causing significant disruption to medical services and commerce. Significant uncertainties about the prevalence of this virus remain. This information which is vital to inform control recommendations and determine the case fatality rate. The recent detection of SARS-CoV-2 in stool raises the possibility of using wastewater-based epidemiological approaches to estimate the community prevalence of SARS-CoV-2. In this approach, molecular quantification of SARS-CoV-2 will be combined with epidemiological data to model outbreak dynamics and estimate the overall prevalence of the virus in the community over time. These data will be integrated into epidemiological models using data from public health surveillance. Data from wastewater could inform epidemiological estimates on finer spatial scales than epidemiological data and could provide indications of continued community transmission following the initial wave of the pandemic. The potential for this virus to become a seasonally transmitted endemic pathogen like influenza and other coronaviruses would make this type of analysis increasingly informative. Technical developments resulting from this research include improved sample handling methods, molecular quantification approaches, integration of the resulting data into epidemiological models, as well as coordination with domestic and international collaborators to standardize methodology. There is significant scientific interest in using wastewater to monitor for SARS-CoV-2 beyond the current outbreak. This research will inform such efforts and help respond to future outbreaks.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

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University of Notre Dame
Notre Dame
United States
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