Wastewater-based epidemiology: a powerful tool to protect the population

Today, global public health needs to tackle the challenge of controlling infectious diseases. Population growth, along with climate change, has brought new infections and others that had been brought under control have re-emerged. It is key to monitor the spread of pathogens to prevent and control these situations and protect the population.

Wastewater-based Epidemiology (WBE) controls current infectious diseases through the analysis of wastewater and spread of resistance. It acts as an Early Warning System for virus outbreaks thanks to comprehensive monitoring of new disease occurrences in real-time.

This article analyzes WBE opportunities and describes Idrica’s use case GoAigua SARS Analytics, an Early Warning System for the detection of Covid-19.

Jacobo Illueca, Wastewater Specialist at Idrica, has recently observed a shift in the use of WBE. Global organizations, such as the UNESCO and the World Economic Forum, are showing their concerns over new viruses and new Covid variants, which are posing a threat to our current system. Wastewater is a key ally to control virus outbreaks, since it is difficult to test the entire population.

Idrica’s Early Warning System for Covid-19 detection

In 2020, Idrica collaborated with the Valencian Regional Government, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the water utility Global Omnium, to develop an Early Warning System that proved to be a total success. The project, which was implemented in Valencia and several cities in the United States, involved the combination of Wastewater-based epidemiology with technology to track the occurrence of the virus in the population. This enabled public authorities to take preventive and corrective actions to combat the spread of the virus.

One of the project’s main results was the creation of a unique data model that gathered information from ERPs, SCADAs, laboratory information management systems, GIS and third-party applications. The model provided valuable information to control the health situation by combining and standardizing this data with demographics, hospital occupancy rates and statistics from public authorities.

Nowadays, this solution is still helping governments around the world to control new outbreaks of the coronavirus. Looking to the future, Illueca stated that “if this has worked well with Covid, why not use it with other viruses such as flu, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) and even biomarkers, to track tobacco and alcohol habits, for instance?”

One of the project outcomes: more targeted lockdowns

This Early Warning System enabled Spanish authorities to put specific areas or neighborhoods into lockdown instead of having to close down the entire city. They were also able to intensify disinfection in certain parts of the city and to launch awareness campaigns, which promoted good hygiene habits and protected vulnerable populations such as people over 65 and children. The Idrica expert pointed out that this procedure was very different to other countries’ policies, which had zero tolerance to the virus and locked down entire cities when there was an outbreak.

According to Illueca, this project started as an emergency strategy to deal with a critical situation in the city of Valencia. However, the authorities saw its potential as a long-term tool for the Smart City roadmap. “This means that there are important opportunities for WBE ahead”.

New use cases for Wastewater-based epidemiology

According to Jacobo Illueca, “the more data that we can connect to the model, the more use cases we will have in the future”. To illustrate this, he explains that WBE can also contribute to managing antimicrobial resistance, especially nowadays with the occurrence of emerging contaminants in wastewater. Wastewater is the perfect environment for antimicrobial resistance to develop due to its warm temperatures, long hydraulic retention times and the pathogens and antibiotics found in it.

“In the near future we can use Wastewater-based epidemiology together with the monitoring of other parameters, such as antibiotics, to track antimicrobial resistance.”

Illueca also mentions the case of wastewater treatment plants, which today center on the removal of organic matter and nutrients. However, the expert states that the opportunity to remove this kind of emerging contaminants with advanced treatments will arise in the future.

To conclude, Idrica’s Wastewater Specialist pointed out that the Covid situation is an international problem which needs investment, not only in Europe or the United States, but also in emerging countries. “With this kind of Early Warning Systems, such as the one we created in Valencia, we will be able to help them”.

Idrica’s technological solution GoAigua SARS Analytics integrates the coordination and planning of sampling, analysis and the follow-up of laboratory results, together with real-time monitoring of key indicators into a single management point. The result is an effective tool for timely action by monitoring sanitation networks and integrating distributed data, helping authorities to anticipate coronavirus outbreaks and have a real-time view of their incidence among the population.

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