More transparency needed on CDC wastewater data

Why are so many wastewater surveillance sites in the CDC’s network currently labeled as “new sites” (white) or “no recent data” (gray)? Here’s what I believe is going on.

Update, May 22, 2022: After this post was published, Becca Malizia, Biobot’s science communication manager, reached out to provide some clarification on the current state of wastewater data in the U.S., as well as on Biobot’s relationship with the CDC. See this follow-up post for more details.

As I mentioned last week: something strange is going on with the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) data.

Hundreds of sites on the CDC NWSS dashboard have been labeled as showing “no recent data” for a couple of weeks. As a New Yorker, I pay special attention to the New York City sites; twelve sites in the city were actually removed from the dashboard, then re-added as “new sites,” even though researchers in the city have been testing wastewater for the coronavirus since 2020.

I have yet to do dedicated reporting on this topic, but I wanted to share a bit of information on why I think this is happening. (Please take this with a grain of salt!)

Last winter, as part of CDC NWSS’ efforts to enable more states and counties across the country to test their wastewater for the coronavirus, the agency contracted with LuminUltra, a biological testing company that has become one of the leading wastewater testers during the pandemic. LuminUltra, in conjunction with NWSS and the Water Environment Federation, was responsible for testing and analyzing wastewater for state and local health departments that wanted to set up this monitoring, but didn’t have internal capacity to do so themselves.

LuminUltra’s contract expired last month. In its place, CDC NWSS has set up a new contract with Biobot, another leading wastewater contractor, the company announced this week. Biobot will be responsible for collecting and analyzing wastewater data at 500 sites across the country; it’s unclear from the press release how many of these sites were also part of the old LuminUltra contract, but I’m guessing there’s a lot of overlap.

Here’s the problem, though: LuminUltra stopped testing wastewater at hundreds of NWSS sites last month, but Biobot hasn’t yet resumed testing, data analysis, reporting to the CDC, etc. at all of these locations. As a result, the CDC NWSS dashboard currently includes a number of sites labeled as “new” or “no recent data,” making it difficult to actually use this federal source for evaluating wastewater trends.

Considering that we’re facing a surge and U.S. case data are less reliable than ever, this is not exactly a great time to have a gap in our wastewater data! (Also, I think that something else may be going on with the New York City sites, but that’s a topic for another post.)

As I said above, I haven’t done much reporting on this myself yet, but I wanted to share a relevant section from a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation about wastewater surveillance in Florida:

One of the largest players in the private testing market is Biobot Analytics, an MIT start-up that wants to market the technology.

Last year the company raised $20 million. It already has contracts with more than 700 municipalities in all 50 states, according to the Boston Globe, including Hillsborough County. But Biobot does not report that data to the CDC. Instead the company shares the data on its website, using its methodology.

Biobot, which collects data from six Florida counties, said it’s up to local governments to share COVID-19 data with the CDC.

The company started collecting Hillsborough’s data in June 2021. A county spokesperson said they haven’t received any reports from Biobot.

The amount of coronavirus detected in Hillsborough’s wastewater has doubled in the past month, according to Biobot’s website. It’s an estimate based on the county’s Northwest Regional Water Reclamation Facility and the city of Tampa’s Howard F. Curren facility.

It’s unclear if Biobot’s data-sharing policy will affect the nation’s wastewater surveillance program. The company took over the federal program on April 15, when it was awarded a $10.2 million contract to oversee the next year of testing.

That contract covers 500 utility providers across the country, according to the CDC. But Biobot and the CDC say the company won’t share COVID-19 data from the 700 utilities not covered by the contract.

I’m elevating this because, first of all, everyone should read the Tampa Bay Times piece—it is excellent local reporting on this issue. And second of all: does this mean that, even as Biobot takes over sampling and analysis for sites in the CDC NWSS network, the Biobot and CDC data systems will not be fully integrated?

This seems like a major challenge for a data network that is already quite fragmented, and I would love to see more transparency from the CDC on the whole situation. If anyone else is reporting on this or has additional information, please reach out!

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