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Raw sewage an important tool in tracking, responding to the coronavirus across US

Raw sewage an important tool in tracking, responding to the coronavirus across US (SBG)
Raw sewage an important tool in tracking, responding to the coronavirus across US (SBG)
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WASHINGTON (SBG) – Who knew raw sewage could be a lifesaver?

Over the past year it’s been used to help communities track and respond to the coronavirus -- and now it's helping cities nationwide reopen.

Mark Hyman was among the first in the nation to put a spotlight on this subject, and he brings us today's "Inside Your World Investigates" story.

“It's been quite remarkable to see how wastewater epidemiology has really exploded as a scientific field within the scientific community,” said Newsha Ghaeli.

Ghaeli was among the few who saw the potential in wastewater analysis. She’s the president and co-founder of a company called Biobot and today, her lab is among dozens that are at work on behalf of several hundred cities and towns nationwide.

“We wanted to transform our sewer systems into public health observatories,” said Ghaeli. “So it's really about tapping into this existing wealth of information that previously we weren't at all really paying attention to.”

Here’s how it works: wastewater contains microscopic strands of virus which can be detected in a lab. Analysts can then pinpoint the source down to a single building, giving them a valuable head start when it comes to identifying hot spots, new variants and genetic mutations -- in many cases before people even know they’re sick.

New Castle County in Delaware was one of the first to embrace the technology, and County Executive Matt Meyer told us he’s not sure what his community would have done without it.

“We could never have fought this virus if it remained invisible and wastewater epidemiology was a vitally important tool to turn the invisible into something more visible,” said Meyer.

New Castle officials told us they monitor wastewater epidemiology reports on a daily basis and that information helps drive their decisions about reopening schools, county services and relaxing safety protocols.

“We've taken a gut punch,” said Meyer. “We've lost a lot of people tragically but those of us who are still here, what we've done is kind of extraordinary.”

So extraordinary is this technology that people like Ghaeli are already busy thinking about how wastewater epidemiology can become a permanent feature of this country’s healthcare system.

“If you think about this as really a way to keep a pulse on the health of our populations, that's really the strength of this technology,” said Ghaeli.

That strength is not only limited to monitoring our health, says Adam Gushgari, CEO of testing lab AquaVitas -- consider what it could mean for national security.

“With a comprehensive enough monitoring network, we could even set up something that would be an indicator of chemical or biological attacks of terror on U.S. soil,” said Gushgari.

The benefits of wastewater epidemiology have not been lost on the feds.

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The work of the people we featured in this this story caught the attention of the CDC and Health and Human Services -- and those two agencies launched the first-ever National Wastewater Surveillance System late last year to monitor COVID and other public health threats.

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