Statewide project to test wastewater for COVID-19 outbreaks 

UIC News Service

Christopher Owen (from left), Rachel Poretsky and Eva Durance extract RNA from wastewater at University of Illinois Chicago’s School of Public Health. (Photo courtesy of UIC)

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) announced a statewide system to monitor wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19, providing public health officials with early warnings of a potential outbreak on a county-by-county basis.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is detectable in human waste nearly from the onset of infection, while symptoms may not appear for three to five days. IDPH is providing $5.5 million to build and support the monitoring system for the next year.

“Data generated through sampling wastewater will help public health officials better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities,” IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said. “Wastewater testing has been used successfully in the past for early detection of diseases, such as polio. Measuring the virus levels in untreated wastewater can serve as an early indicator of increasing infections in a community and can inform our public health actions.”

Together, IDPH and DPI will implement the program in phases, starting with sampling and analysis in 10 Illinois counties, expanding to 35 counties in mid-summer and to all 102 Illinois counties by the end of the year.

A rapid, automated sample processing and analysis system will be built to measure SARS-CoV-2 levels, which will indicate a rise or fall of COVID-19 infections in the communities served by the treatment plants.

Samples will be further analyzed at Argonne National Laboratory and IDPH laboratories using genetic sequencing to track COVID-19 variants.

DPI’s Wastewater-Based Epidemiology science team is led by Rachel Poretsky, an associate professor in the biological sciences department of University of Illinois Chicago, and Charlie Catlett, a DPI senior research scientist. The team includes scientists from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University.

“This project is a great example of DPI bringing the best scientists from its partner institutions to help Illinois address an urgent public health need,” DPI Executive Director Bill Jackson said. “Through this project as well as our support of the University of Illinois System’s COVID-19 testing efforts, we’ve demonstrated a nimbleness that is uncommon in academia, and that’s because we have all of the scientific talent and business acumen we need right here.”