Game-changing approach will help inform decision-making, protect public health in Albany, Buffalo and Syracuse.

The New York State Department of Health has selected the SARS-CoV-2 Early Warning Wastewater Surveillance Platform (SARS2-EWSP) to pilot a statewide coronavirus transmission early warning system.

With $500,000 in state pilot funding, the SARS2-EWSP project will expand into Albany, Newburgh, and Buffalo, and increase the frequency of surveillance in Syracuse and Onondaga County. Other interested municipalities can also participate in the platform, although at this time they will have to self-fund.

Once fully operational, the early warning system will enable these municipalities to better track increases and decreases in coronavirus transmission and make more informed decisions regarding reopening and closing businesses and schools.

Gov. Cuomo announced the project on August 14, 2020 as one of a series of new initiatives related to COVID-19 testing.

The SARS2-EWSP project started as a collaboration in mid-March between scientists from Syracuse University, SUNY ESF, and SUNY Upstate. Seeking to expand to a statewide platform, the scientists teamed with industry partners Arcadis and Quadrant Biosciences to provide expertise and scale in wastewater sampling and laboratory analysis.

“Tracking the coronavirus in wastewater provides a cost-effective method of understanding community-level transmission dynamics,” said Syracuse University epidemiologist Dr. David Larsen, who leads the SARS2-EWSP team. “We now need to coordinate and scale this type of monitoring into a centralized and statewide platform to better inform responses to the coronavirus pandemic.”

In addition to Larsen, the team includes Drs. Hyatt Green and Mary Collins from SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry; Dr. Frank Middleton from SUNY Upstate Medical University; Drs. Brittany Kmush and Teng Zeng from Syracuse University; Dr. Qian Du from Quadrant Biosciences; and others.

“Wastewater-based epidemiology has been around for some time, but because of the scale of this pandemic and recent technological advances, never has it shown so much potential to help save lives and livelihoods,” said SUNY ESF environmental microbiologist Green, whose team along with SUNY Upstate’s Middleton developed the analytical methods to detect the virus in wastewater.

The SARS2-EWSP platform monitors the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater, the virus that causes COVID-19, alerting the state and participating cities to increases and decreases in viral transmission. These real-time trends provide critical information for reopening and closing decisions.

SARS-CoV-2 is spread by symptomatic and asymptomatic carriers. Monitoring the wastewater collection system can help a community understand where the virus is present at a low per-capita cost, even in the absence of physical symptoms and challenges or delays in testing.

Early detection of increasing transmission allows state and local officials to take precautionary safety measures that can prevent future spread while maintaining a layer of anonymity for residents. And when transmission decreases, monitoring wastewater confirms the decline and eases anxiety about missing cases or transmission in the health system.

“The power of this partnership is in the unique blend of engineering and epidemiology coming together to safeguard public health through rapid detection,” said Alex Rothchild, Arcadis’ CEO in North America. “As communities move to reopen safely, this collaborative effort will be instrumental in helping the state and local communities make informed decisions to protect residents’ physical and economic well-being.”

To maximize results for the state, team members will lean heavily on their respective strengths. Arcadis’ wastewater engineers and scientists will use knowledge of collection systems to identify strategic sampling locations and use best-in-class techniques for safe sample collection. Samples will be analyzed by Quadrant Biosciences, using an ultracentrifugation method developed by SARS2-EWSP scientists. The team will use a new data modelling methodology developed by SARS2-EWSP scientists to understand and report on how virus transmission in communities is changing to inform state officials.

“This can be a real game-changer in the detection and monitoring of COVID-19,” said Quadrant Biosciences CEO Richard Uhlig. “Information from this testing will allow municipalities to estimate COVID-19 transmission in real time, provide instant feedback on social distancing and reopening phases, help predict hospitalizations and provide confidence for locations with zero transmission to resume normal activity.”

About the SARS2-EWSP Team

The SARS2-EWSP team is a collaboration between scientists from Syracuse University, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and State University of New York Upstate Medical University. With a variety of expertise in epidemiology, microbiology, chemistry, computer science, and information science, the team has worked since March on developing an early warning wastewater surveillance system to aid in the coronavirus pandemic.