Tempe was at the forefront of wastewater testing for COVID-19, other emerging health crises

By Nicholas Gerbis
Published: Monday, December 12, 2022 - 9:40am
Updated: Monday, December 12, 2022 - 10:09am

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Lead author Devin Bowes prepares samples for SARS-CoV-2 analysis
Devin Bowes/Arizona State University
Lead author Devin Bowes prepares samples for SARS-CoV-2 analysis in ASU's Biodesign Center for Environmental Health Engineering laboratory.

In the pandemic’s early days, Arizona State University transformed its wastewater monitoring project for the city of Tempe from an opioid monitor to a COVID-19 early warning system.

“The city of Tempe was a true pioneer buying into this technology, when there were few believers, and skepticism was very high,” said senior author Rolf Halden, director of the Center for Environmental Health Engineering at ASU’s Biodesign Institute.

A recent paper in the journal Lancet Microbe looks back on the system’s effectiveness — and forward to its future.

“We were the first in the world to not only measure this, but to put it up on an open-access dashboard so that the public could see in real time how the virus was moving through our communities and threatening our health,” said Halden.

The system tracked SARS-CoV-2 transmission by analyzing wastewater for telltale biomarkers such as SARS-CoV-2’s E gene. The samples were collected by the city of Tempe three days a week from 11 catchments.

The new analysis of more than 1,500 samples from April 2020 through March 2021 shows, early in the pandemic, neighborhood-level wastewater monitoring and testing could detect viral spikes weeks earlier than traditional human testing could.

Field sampling with city of Tempe
Devin Bowes/Arizona State University
Field sampling with city of Tempe personnel.

That let officials mount a response even as healthcare resources still struggled to ramp up.

“That allowed us to say, ‘Hey, look, there's, a problem; we have to move in and help these affected communities.’ And by doing so, we were able to then contain the spread of the virus,” said Halden.

The method makes the biggest impact when detecting biomarkers for which no active monitoring exists. Once widespread testing and tracking are in place, wastewater monitoring can supplement those systems.

“So now we have two different tools, and they each have their place. And if you combine them together — clinical testing and wastewater monitoring — you get the best of both worlds, and you can protect people most effectively,” he said.

With that in mind, the team has set its sights on expanding far beyond COVID-19 or opioids.

“We actually have a long list of up to 300 different biomarkers that we can measure successfully in wastewater to understand population health,” he said.

Examples include polio, obesity, diabetes and cancer, as well as exposures to toxins.

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