Editor’s note, October 15: This article has been updated with comments from Verily.
This week, the CDC and life sciences company Verily announced that the agency awarded a five-year wastewater surveillance contract to Verily. The announcement marks a shift in the U.S. sewage monitoring landscape and will impact our public COVID-19 data, with short-term gaps and changing coverage in a couple of sources—but ultimate improvements in the long term.
First, some background:
In fall 2020, the CDC launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS), a network of sewage testing sites around the country all reporting data to a central location. While some state and local health agencies quickly developed in-house systems for testing wastewater and reporting their data to NWSS, others lacked the resources (staff, lab capacity, data infrastructure, etc.) to start doing this new type of health surveillance.
As a result, the CDC began working with private testing companies to fill gaps in the NWSS network and expand surveillance more quickly across the country. The first contactor was a diagnostic company headquartered in Canada called LuminUltra. Then, last spring, the CDC awarded a contract to Biobot Analytics, a startup focused on wastewater surveillance. Biobot did a lot of work to extend the NWSS, helping bring the total CDC network up to nearly 1,400 sites; but the contractor switch initially led to a few weeks of missing data for about 150 sites covered by the CDC contract, as they transitioned from one set of testing protocols to another. (See my coverage at the time for more details.)
One advantage of Biobot working with the NWSS, if you’re someone who cares about public wastewater data, is that the company added data from many CDC contract sites to its COVID-19 wastewater dashboard, making that dashboard more comprehensive in its view of national COVID-19 patterns. You couldn’t view the CDC sites in Biobot’s county-level visualizations; those present data from other sites that have individual contracts with the company or are participating in the free Biobot Network program. But Biobot added CDC sites that opted into data-sharing to its national and regional visualizations, a company spokesperson told me last year.
What’s changing with the new contract:
Biobot’s contract with the CDC ended last month. The CDC’s new contract with Verily replaces it. Verily’s contract covers five years (as opposed to shorter periods for prior CDC wastewater testing contracts), and includes additions of more pathogens that may be tested through NWSS, in addition to SARS-CoV-2. These are both great improvements, adding to the surveillance system’s longevity and expanding its capacity beyond COVID-19—though additional federal funds will likely be needed past this contract.
However, in the short term, we will see data gaps on NWSS as contracted sites change over to Verily from Biobot. These testing sites may have to adjust how they collect samples, how they package and ship samples, and other logistical changes. The CDC NWSS dashboard already indicates a reporting dip in the last couple of weeks, coinciding with the contract change.
Meanwhile, Biobot will no longer have the same direct access to the CDC contract testing sites. While all the sites’ data will still be published publicly by the CDC, the Biobot-Verily switch will likely lead to changes in sample processing and analysis that make data from those sites no longer directly comparable with the hundreds of other sites covered by Biobot. My guess here is that Biobot may no longer be able to include the CDC contract sites in its national and regional visualizations.
I reached out to Biobot for comment about this shift, and haven’t heard back from them yet. I’ve also reached out to Verily asking about the contract changeover and any data-sharing plans they may have, and haven’t heard back there yet either. I will update this post with more details from the companies as I receive them.
How this new contract may impact major data sources:
- CDC NWSS: Data from all sites participating in NWSS will continue to be available on the CDC’s dashboard, though the sites covered by the CDC’s national testing contract (previously with Biobot, now with Verily) may have missing data for a couple of weeks. NWSS continues to be the most comprehensive place to find wastewater data in the U.S., but unfortunately doesn’t share national or regional trends because it is compiling from many different testing programs with different methodologies.
- Biobot Analytics: County-level data won’t change. National and regional data will still be available, but are likely to be less comprehensive pictures of wastewater trends across the U.S., if I’m right about Biobot no longer including CDC contract sites in those visualizations. Also worth noting, Biobot shifted its update schedule recently to once a week on Mondays (with a longer delay in data, but likely less retroactive updating).
- WastewaterSCAN: No changes due to this contract switch, though WastewaterSCAN has been working with Verily for a while to test sewage samples from its network. This project also recently announced that it’s adding six more disease targets to its program: parainfluenza, rotavirus, adenovirus group F, enterovirus D68, Candida auris, and hepatitis A. See the statement from WastewaterSCAN below for more details.
- In the long-term: The CDC’s new five-year contract will enable continued expansion of the NWSS, potentially with both more sites and more disease targets. I also expect public data offerings will continue to improve as scientists and public health officials learn more about how to interpret wastewater surveillance data.
Statement from WastewaterSCAN about the new contract
WastewaterSCAN was pleased to learn that the CDC selected Verily to support the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS). As our lab partner, Verily has an important role managing sample collection logistics from wastewater treatment plants participating in the WastewaterSCAN network, processing samples, and supporting our research to advance the science of wastewater-based epidemiology.
WastewaterSCAN continues to demonstrate that wastewater monitoring can provide comprehensive, efficient, community-wide tracking of seasonal and emerging diseases. We recently added six disease targets to our program and are helping many communities prepare for the respiratory virus season with a public data dashboard to communicate what wastewater is telling us about the diseases circulating in our communities.
At this time, only data from our program will appear on WastewaterSCAN’s data dashboard. WastewaterSCAN will continue to make our methods public and to collaborate and share data with NWSS and contribute to its important, mission-critical work.
Statement from Verily, responding to COVID-19 Data Dispatch questions
CDD: Will the WastewaterSCAN dashboard start including data from wastewater testing sites included in the CDC contract, as they come online? Or is Verily planning to launch its own dashboard that will share data from those sites (perhaps in aggregate, national trends, similar to the current Biobot dashboard)?
Verily: WastewaterSCAN representatives have responded.
On the question of sharing aggregated, national trends data from these sites: This is a CDC decision for the NWSS testing program.
CDD: Besides public dashboards, will there be alignment between WastewaterSCAN and Verily in how wastewater data are processed, analyzed, and interpreted?
Verily: There are many methods for analyzing the concentration of pathogens in wastewater. Verily offers several methods for wastewater analysis to its customers and ones chosen by the CDC NWSS and WastewaterSCAN programs differ primarily in what part of the wastewater is analyzed and how the pathogens are concentrated and extracted before measurement of pathogen concentrations. Beyond these initial steps, Verily’s lab processes all samples similarly.
The liquid fraction (of influent samples) will be concentrated and tested for the CDC NWSS program, similar to the approach previously used for NWSS contract testing.
The solid fraction of samples (from the primary clarifier or influent) has been shown to concentrate many pathogens and is tested for the WastewaterSCAN program.
Results from methods have shown agreement with case data in the literature. However, differences between the methods make them complementary to each other.
CDD: When the CDC previously switched contractors in spring 2022, some testing sites covered by the contract didn’t report to NWSS for several weeks while they transferred to a new process. What is Verily doing to help transition sites during the current switch?
Verily: Verily has an established system and team dedicated to onboarding new sites with the ability to rapidly initiate testing. This is informed by our previous experience providing logistics and lab services to over 200 sites in wastewater monitoring programs.
As we receive information from the CDC NWSS program about which sites will transition, we will get sites up and running as soon as possible. Our goal is to have up to 200 sites testing within the first four weeks of the contract.