This week, I have a new story out in Scientific American about why the wastewater surveillance infrastructure built during the pandemic may not last in the long term. While current monitoring projects aren’t likely to go anywhere right now, issues with funding, uneven commitments at state and local levels, and the overall novelty of this field may lead those programs to shut down in the coming years.
Here’s the story’s opening paragraphs:
During the past three years of the pandemic, testing sewage water for the virus that causes COVID has become a valuable tool: it has spotted surging infections and new variants weeks before they showed up in medical clinics, for instance. The technology has also warned of other health threats such as seasonal viruses and increased opioid use.
But now its long-term ability to protect public health is in jeopardy. Funding uncertainty from the federal government and uneven commitments from state health departments have raised the specter that wastewater monitoring programs may shut down in the future.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), which includes the majority of wastewater testing sites in the U.S., is “fully funded through 2025,” says Amy Kirby, director of the program. But after that, “new sources of sustainable funding” are needed, Kirby says, ideally through the CDC’s regular budget rather than resources tied to COVID. Uncertainty about money—along with logistical challenges and questions about how to interpret data from this relatively novel source—has made some state governments hesitant to invest in the technology, leading to an uneven national system.
My reporting for this piece involved interviews with the CDC, state and local public health agencies, and other major wastewater organizations (Biobot, WastewaterSCAN). I learned a lot about the overall ecosystem for funding wastewater surveillance, including a lot of somewhat-technical details that didn’t make it into the SciAm story. So, I’m sharing some of those details here.
Where wastewater surveillance funding comes from:
The primary funder for wastewater monitoring programs across the U.S. is CDC NWSS. The CDC itself received funding through the American Rescue Plan in 2021, sufficient to fully fund NWSS through 2025.
That CDC funding has gone in two main directions. First, the CDC has funded state and local public health agencies to set up (and maintain) their own wastewater testing projects. This is how most of the states with robust programs (places like New York, Utah, Virginia, Ohio) have funded their efforts. State and local health agencies may also receive funding from their own local governments, though most of the agencies I talked to for my story said they were primarily relying on the CDC. New York State is one major example of a state government funding wastewater surveillance right now.
And second, the CDC has set up national contracts with wastewater testing companies to supplement NWSS in places where monitoring otherwise might not be happening. The agency first contracted with LuminUltra in early 2022, then switched to Biobot Analytics last spring. Earlier this year, Biobot’s contract with the CDC was extended for six months, through July. After that, the agency plans to enter a new, five-year contract with a wastewater testing company that will cover COVID-19 as well as other emerging diseases, like mpox. This contract could go to Biobot or another company; the CDC is currently going through an application process.
Biobot and other private companies like it are also receiving funding from private sources, such as venture capital firms. In addition, individual water treatment facilities, local governments, and even businesses might set up contracts with private companies to help them test the wastewater in their jurisdiction. For example, Toronto’s Pearson Airport has contracted with LuminUltra to test wastewater from the airport terminals. In these cases, funding is coming from the specific organization that wants testing, rather than a larger program. Biobot also tests at hundreds of sites for free through its Biobot Network, in exchange for sharing the data publicly.
Finally, there’s a whole separate ecosystem of academic wastewater surveillance efforts, mostly run by university labs or research centers. WastewaterSCAN is the biggest example of this right now; the project was founded at Stanford and Emory Universities, but has since expanded through grants and philanthropic funding to cover about 150 sites across the country. Most academic projects either partner with specific treatment facilities in their areas or test the sewage on their campuses—SCAN is an exception with its broader scale.
Concerns for wastewater surveillance’s long-term future:
As you can probably tell by this description of the funding landscape, wastewater surveillance in the U.S. is pretty complicated. When scientists started testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 in spring 2020, this was basically a grassroots effort with different research projects across the country trying out different things. CDC NWSS has worked hard to compile data into one national system and develop standards, but the system is still far from unified.
For the CDC program to continue its efforts, the agency needs more long-term funding—and this funding shouldn’t be tied to COVID-19. The potential for wastewater surveillance to inform public health decisions goes far beyond this pandemic, and funding should reflect that potential; also, no COVID-specific funding packages have passed Congress since the American Rescue Plan, in 2021.
One way Congress could do this would be by expanding a funding system called “Epidemiology and Laboratory Capacity for Prevention and Control of Emerging Infectious Diseases,” or ELC. Most wastewater grants to state and local health agencies over the last couple of years have gone through ELC, though the funding came from the American Rescue Plan. Many of the health officials I talked to for my story like ELC, know how to fill out the annual applications, and would want to keep using it to receive wastewater funding.
Before the pandemic, the ELC program was drastically underfunded, I learned from experts at the Association of Public Health Laboratories (APHL). States’ applications historically “vastly exceed the money that CDC is given to put out for them,” APHL policy officer Peter Kyriacopoulos told me. APHL recommends that Congress should expand the program’s funding from $300 million per year (its pre-pandemic benchmark) to $800 million per year, or more. The ELC program is up for renewal this year, which could be an opportunity for Congress to add more permanent funding for wastewater surveillance and other epidemiological efforts.
More permanent funding could go a long way in convincing more state health agencies to invest in wastewater surveillance programs, rather than relying on outside assistance from companies like Biobot or academic partners. More data and guidance on how to actually use wastewater data to inform public health decisions would help, too, since many agencies are still figuring this out. Such investment at the state level would help make the country’s wastewater infrastructure more comprehensive, and more capable of responding to new health threats.
Instead, right now, we have an uneven system. Some places are regularly monitoring for COVID-19 and easily able to expand to new testing targets, while others might lose this valuable data source in the next year or two. For any local reporters reading this, I highly recommend digging into your community’s wastewater surveillance system, and figuring out whether it’s set up for the long term.