Skip to content
Infectious Disease

Wastewater Testing for COVID-19

Some limited wastewater testing for COVID-19 has occurred in Alaska to study whether this might be an effective surveillance tool here.

On this page:

What is wastewater surveillance for COVID-19?

Wastewater surveillance can be helpful to detect clusters of COVID-19 and could help us know if COVID-19 is being transmitted in a community before those who are infected show symptoms. This kind of surveillance is intended as an added disease detection tool, not to replace testing data from hospitals or other ways public health officials investigate and track diseases.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is shed in the feces of individuals sick with COVID-19, including people who are experiencing no symptoms. Wastewater can be tested for presence of RNA from SARS-CoV-2. Wastewater surveillance has been used successfully in the past to  help manage outbreaks of other diseases like polio.

Wastewater is not known to transmit the disease. There is no information to date that anyone has become sick with COVID-19 because of direct exposure to treated or untreated wastewater. But by studying wastewater, we can know whether COVID-19 is present within a community, university or other congregate settings like assisted living facilities or correctional facilities.

What can wastewater surveillance do?

Wastewater sampling is not meant to replace existing clinical COVID-19 surveillance systems — it complements this information. In certain situations, wastewater surveillance may be able to provide information on COVID-19 infection trends in a community such as data on disease burden for communities where clinical testing is low, the detection of the virus in a community before a clinical case is confirmed, and the absence of disease after controls are implemented (e.g., a vaccine).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), in collaboration with other federal agencies, initiated the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Data generated by NWSS is intended to help public health officials to better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities.

Is wastewater surveillance happening in Alaska?

Currently, there is not widespread sampling of wastewater for the virus that causes COVID-19 in Alaska, but researchers are studying how this tool might be used. Sampling wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 is new and there is still research that needs to be done to better understand the limitations of this tool and how it can be used most effectively in Alaska.

During the summer of 2020, Anchorage, Fairbanks, and Sitka participated in a pilot study with the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA), the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), and the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) to investigate the in-state capacity to detect the virus in wastewater. Following the study, UAA further developed and refined the wastewater testing process. UAA continues to work with wastewater utilities across the state and has the capacity to accept additional samples on a contract basis.

Several communities have been working with commercial laboratories to collect and analyze wastewater samples. Because these entities are typically not directly working with DHSS and DEC, the State of Alaska cannot provide a comprehensive list of which communities have participated in wastewater surveillance or detailed information about the results of these wastewater sampling efforts.

How can I learn more?

CDC recently updated their website on wastewater surveillance. This website provides answers to common questions, details on the NWSS, and guidance for communities interested in developing a wastewater surveillance program for SARS-CoV-2. The University of Alaska Anchorage is also willing to provide a brief presentation on the subject to community leadership upon request.

Questions related to wastewater surveillance in Alaska can be directed to:

Can't find what you're looking for?