In the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, scientists took what they knew about assessing beach safety and applied it to assessing the spread of the virus in a given community using wastewater analysis.

Michigan’s wastewater monitoring infrastructure was built on the fly when the new virus swept the state. Now that the worst of COVID-19 appears to be behind us, researchers are looking at other ways to use the detection process to detect viral outbreaks more quickly.

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“There are opportunities for wastewater not only for COVID, but also for studying other pathogens,” said Marisa Eisenberg, assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Michigan. Although it does not count individual cases, this process can detect outbreaks at the population level, and do so more quickly than clinical trials.

Researchers have already begun tracking flu, norovirus and monkeypox in wastewater in Michigan and beyond. Elsewhere, they discovered polio in New York City’s sewer system and overseas.

The science itself isn’t new, but the systems put in place during the pandemic have allowed Michigan to expand surveillance from two university labs to 20 labs across the state.

“It’s pretty amazing to grow it in such a short amount of time,” said Tammy Seavey, a chemistry professor at Saginaw Valley State University. “We’ve been doing this for 2.5 years, but in the beginning everyone worked hard to make sure that the method works, that it’s worth working on, and that it gives us reliable and interesting data.”

Viruses are transmitted through human saliva and feces that enter the drain. These samples can then be tested for the presence of genomic material from various pathogens.

The process is not as simple as testing a sample to identify all pathogens in it. But if a researcher routinely looks for a particular pathogen, such as the coronavirus, he or she can successfully identify the virus, track trends, and alert health officials of a potential outbreak a week before cases increase.

In Saginaw Valley, Seavey said her team regularly tests once or twice a week, both campus-wide and individually at each residence hall.

“If we get a small prediction of contamination in a particular building, then people in that building can be alerted,” Seavey said. “There was increased testing and then more quarantine to prevent it from spreading.”

In the state of Michigan, wastewater is regularly monitored at 20 sewer sites located in 18 counties and the city of Detroit. Each region of the state has at least two sites, each reporting their own trends across the state Online wastewater monitoring panel.

During 2020 and 2021, the majority of COVID cases were diagnosed and reported through testing sites. But over the past year, self-testing has grown in popularity, which in turn has reduced the number of reported cases and placed a greater emphasis on wastewater surveillance.

“Wastewater gives us an opportunity to continue to get a consistent measurement of how much transmission is occurring at the population level,” Eisenberg said. “I think it’s going to become more and more important.”

Michigan labs across the state have formed a group known as the Michigan Network for Environment and Technology (MiNET), which holds weekly calls to discuss trends and best practices. Seavey said there are discussions about using methods to detect other pathogens or even trends in the use of pharmaceuticals and opioids.

Future trials are likely to require additional financial investment. Last year, the federal government supplied Michigan grants totaling nearly $49 million to fund coronavirus testing using wastewater surveillance. The funds were divided among 19 laboratories and are expected to run out next fall.

Michigan has not followed New York’s lead in testing its sewage for polio, in part because of a lack of funding to do so.

While questions remain about the future of wastewater monitoring, Seavey said Michigan’s progress in this area throughout the pandemic has opened the door for continued use down the road.

“Really, the possibilities for using these molecular techniques are — I hate to say they’re endless — but they can be applied to many different pathogens to track their spread through the community,” she said.

“We’ve all developed our skills and experience a lot, so I think everyone is looking for a way to apply these methodologies to other areas, other pathogens, because we can.”

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