Use of Wastewater Surveillance for Early Detection of Alpha and Epsilon SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern and Estimation of Overall COVID-19 Infection Burden
Science of The Total Environment
Vo V., Tillett R.L., Papp K., Shen S., Gu R., Gorzalski A., Siao D., Markland R., Chang C.-L., Baker H., Chen J., Schiller M., Betancourt W.Q., Buttery E., Pandori M., Picker M.A., Gerrity D. & Oh E.C.
A decline in diagnostic testing for SARS-CoV-2 is expected to delay the tracking of COVID-19 variants of concern and interest in the United States. We hypothesize that wastewater surveillance programs provide an effective alternative for detecting emerging variants and assessing COVID-19 incidence, particularly when clinical surveillance is limited. Here, we analyzed SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater from eight locations across Southern Nevada between March 2020 and April 2021. Trends in SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentrations (ranging from 4.3 log10 gc/L to 8.7 log10 gc/L) matched trends in confirmed COVID-19 incidence, but wastewater surveillance also highlighted several limitations with the clinical data. Amplicon-based whole genome sequencing (WGS) of 86 wastewater samples identified the B.1.1.7 (Alpha) and B.1.429 (Epsilon) lineages in December 2020, but clinical sequencing failed to identify the variants until January 2021, thereby demonstrating that ‘pooled’ wastewater samples can sometimes expedite variant detection. Also, by calibrating fecal shedding (11.4 log10 gc/infection) and wastewater surveillance data to reported seroprevalence, we estimate that ~38% of individuals in Southern Nevada had been infected by SARS-CoV-2 as of April 2021, which is significantly higher than the 10% of individuals confirmed through clinical testing. Sewershed-specific ascertainment ratios (i.e., X-fold infection undercounts) ranged from 1.0 to 7.7, potentially due to demographic differences. Our data underscore the growing application of wastewater surveillance in not only the identification and quantification of infectious agents, but also the detection of variants of concern that may be missed when diagnostic testing is limited or unavailable.
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