Wastewater-based disease surveillance: U-M experts can discuss

January 19, 2023


A new report released today by The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine 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.

University of Michigan faculty members, including two who served on the Academies’ Committee on Community Wastewater-based Infectious Disease Surveillance, can discuss the report, “Wastewater-based Disease Surveillance for Public Health Action.

Marisa Eisenberg, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and director of the Center for the Study of Complex Systems, can discuss the public health benefit of a national wastewater monitoring system as a way to provide an early warning system by identifying transmission patterns without relying on clinical testing.

“Wastewater monitoring is expanding to track a wide range of pathogens and provide a new data stream to inform public health decision-making,” she said. “In this report, we review how wastewater monitoring has informed public health decision-making in the pandemic, and provided a roadmap for how to build our national wastewater system going forward.”

Contact: 734-763-2991, marisae@umich.edu

Krista Wigginton, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the College of Engineering, co-led one of the first federally funded studies to find SARS in wastewater when the pandemic started. That effort produced the science that led to the national WastewaterSCAN project. She has been involved in implementing it in the Michigan cities of Ann Arbor, Flint, Jackson, Tecumseh and Ypsilanti.

“For COVID-19, we’ve seen that wastewater surveillance data can augment traditional surveillance data to identify when there’s an uptick of infections in a community, when infections have peaked, and what’s happening with variants,” she said.

“While wastewater data shouldn’t replace conventional metrics such as cases and hospitalizations, it can address some weak spots. For example, it’s not biased by testing availability or trends, and it captures an entire community in one sample. Incorporating wastewater data into traditional data streams can provide communities with a better picture of what’s happening.

“Thinking beyond COVID-19, wastewater surveillance has the potential to help us better understand the presence and dynamics of many additional types of infections in our communities. This will continue to be valuable for local, state, and national public health responses.”

Contact: kwigg@umich.edu

Chuanwu Xi, professor of environmental health services and global public health at the School of Public Health, played a key role in implementing wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 on the U-M campus. His involvement was part of a larger effort by the Michigan Network for Environmental Health and Technology to monitor Michigan public sewer systems for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.

“Even after the pandemic is over, wastewater monitoring could play a role similar to fire alarms in buildings,” he said.

Contact: 734-615-7594, cxi@umich.edu