Looking Forward: The Role of Academic Researchers in Building Sustainable Wastewater Surveillance Programs

Catherine Hoar, Jill McClary-Gutierrez, Marlene K. Wolfe, Aaron Bivins, Kyle Bibby, Andrea I. Silverman, Sandra L. McLellan

Research output: Contribution to journalComment/debatepeer-review


BACKGROUND: In just over 2 years, tracking the COVID-19 pandemic through wastewater surveillance advanced from early reports of successful SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection in untreated wastewater to implementation of programs in at least 60 countries. Early wastewater monitoring efforts primarily originated in research laboratories and are now transitioning into more formal surveillance programs run in commercial and public health laboratories. A major challenge in this progression has been to simultaneously optimize methods and build scientific consensus while implementing surveillance programs, particularly during the rapidly changing landscape of the pandemic. Translating wastewater surveillance results for effective use by public health agencies also remains a key objective for the field. OBJECTIVES: We examined the evolution of wastewater surveillance to identify model collaborations and effective partnerships that have created rapid and sustained success. We propose needed areas of research and key roles academic researchers can play in the framework of wastewater surveillance to aid in the transition from early monitoring efforts to more formalized programs within the public health system. DISCUSSION: Although wastewater surveillance has rapidly developed as a useful public health tool for tracking COVID-19, there remain technical challenges and open scientific questions that academic researchers are equipped to address. This includes validating methodology and backfilling important knowledge gaps, such as fate and transport of surveillance targets and epidemiological links to wastewater concentrations. Our experience in initiating and implementing wastewater surveillance programs in the United States has allowed us to reflect on key barriers and draw useful lessons on how to promote synergy between different areas of expertise. As wastewater surveillance programs are formalized, the working relationships developed between academic researchers, commercial and public health laboratories, and data users should promote knowledge co-development. We believe active involvement of academic researchers will contribute to building robust surveillance programs that will ultimately provide new insights into population health. https://doi.org/10.1289/EHP11519.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number125002
JournalEnvironmental health perspectives
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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