Speed Reads

Solving COVID

CDC is working to create a COVID-19 wastewater surveillance system as sewage samples prove effective

Testing wastewater for a deadly virus isn't new — it has been used to identify polio outbreaks — but the idea has gained traction as cities and universities look for ways to plod toward normalcy as the world awaits a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine. Universities have had great success monitoring for COVID-19 flare-ups by testing wastewater, or "all the dirty stuff from the toilets, showers, sinks, washing machines, dishwashers, you name it," Politico reports. And now "the CDC and HHS are working on a national wastewater surveillance system and data portal" for willing states and local governments.

People shed the coronavirus in their waste days before they show signs of illness, so finding COVID-19 in wastewater can give authorities "seven precious days for intervention," said Ian Pepper at the University of Arizona. His team tested the wastewater outside dorms every morning, but monitoring samples of sewage in Baton Rouge predicted an outbreak two weeks after Louisiana's governor lifted restrictions — then tracked the sharp decline in infections after the governor started requiring people to wear masks.

Setting up a nationwide wastewater surveillance system early in the pandemic would have helped alert officials before an outbreak took hold, says David Larsen, an epidemiologist and public health expert at Syracuse University, one of the schools that tests wastewater. "My kids would be in school right now. Our economy would not have tanked the way that it has."

And testing every U.S. ZIP code twice a week would cost about $3 billion a year, Larsen estimates. "It's really not much. The cost per person monitored is like $10, if that, a year." The payoff, he said, is it "would be huge to get us back to work" for the year before a vaccine becomes widely available.