UF technique improves accuracy of disease prevalence generated by wastewater surveillance

students collecting wastewater sample
Andrew Rainey and Amber O’Conner, doctoral students in environmental and global health and members of the Gator WATCH™ team, sample wastewater from a manhole.

Wastewater-based epidemiology is a valuable public health surveillance tool that has been used throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to track infection trends, identify potential outbreaks and monitor novel viral variants of concern. A University of Florida College of Public Health and Health Professions team has tested a quantitative tool for use in wastewater-based epidemiology that has proved to be more effective than traditional approaches at estimating the prevalence of COVID-19 in a community.

The team of scientists in the PHHP department of environmental and global health, including Ph.D. student Andrew Rainey and faculty members Anthony Maurelli, Ph.D., Joseph Bisesi, Ph.D., Tara Sabo-Attwood, Ph.D., Song Liang, Ph.D., and Eric Coker, Ph.D., published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

For their study, the investigators, who are also members of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, used a novel application of the mass balance equation to estimate the prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infections within a community. The mass balance equation was originally derived to estimate community-level usage of illicit drugs. This approach has since been adopted for estimating the community-level prevalence of infectious diseases by measuring pathogen concentration in wastewater, individual-level fecal shedding rate of the pathogen, estimated individual-level daily fecal mass, and wastewater flow rate.

In collaboration with Gainesville Regional Utilities, the investigators collected wastewater in Gainesville, Florida, weekly from May 2020-May 2021 and used the mass balance equation to estimate the weekly prevalence of COVID-19 in the city. They found the mass balance equation generated accurate prevalence estimates when compared to prevalence derived from traditional clinical surveillance approaches.

These findings show how wastewater-based epidemiology, when used with the mass balance equation, can estimate the burden of COVID-19 within a community without the need to rely on data on health care seeking behaviors within a community.

“As clinical testing and reporting of COVID-19 has decreased, making clinical surveillance more unreliable, the use of wastewater-based epidemiology and the mass balance equation have become even more important in helping fill this gap in surveillance during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic,” the authors write.