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CDM Smith Launches R&D Effort to Predict COVID-19 Outbreaks Via Wastewater Analysis

20 April 2020

BOSTON—CDM Smith has launched a collab­o­ra­tion with Irene Xagoraraki, Ph.D., associate professor of civil and envi­ron­men­tal engineering at Michigan State University, and water reclamation utilities across the United States to track severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in wastewater, with the goal of developing a tool to predict future outbreaks.

The first phase of this work focuses on collecting longi­tu­di­nal wastewater viral surveil­lance data at water reclamation utilities in major U.S. cities. Wastewater samples will be collected and analyzed one to two times per week for five months to identify the diversity of human viruses and determine concen­tra­tions of SARS-CoV-2 as well as other wastewater constituents. Although most of the virus is expected to be inactive and therefore not infectious, the viral concen­tra­tion can still provide useful information related to COVID-19 incidence in the community. Our results will complement shorter-term surveil­lance studies by other researchers.

In Detroit, we have partnered with the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) to execute the first phase at its water resource recovery facility where they are supplying in-kind sampling labor. This effort is being led by John Norton, Jr., Ph.D., PE director of energy, research and innovation and Andrea Busch, PhD, research and innovation management profes­sional. Both Dr. Norton and Dr. Xagoraraki were selected to the Water Research Foundation inter­na­tional task force on COVID-19. 

“We are proud to financially and technically support this project,” say Dr. Norton. “This project has significant impli­ca­tions for providing a near real-time signal of disease incidence in the community. In addition, this project strongly aligns with our core mission of providing excellent water and wastewater services to the public.”

During the second phase of the work, CDM Smith and Dr. Xagoraraki will develop a predictive model for each city by coupling the viral data with other relevant information. Key inputs will include: viral diversity and concen­tra­tions, biomarkers of disease and stress, collection system dynamics, virus life cycle and envi­ron­men­tal fate and transport, and demo­graph­ics. The team will consider how to incorporate smaller communities and neigh­bor­hood-level data into the predictive model.   

“Our overall aim is to generate a tool that allows public health officials to predict the potential location and timing of emerging outbreaks,” said Greta Zornes, Ph.D., CDM Smith water reuse and industrial treatment practice leader. “This predictive model will inform appropriate short-term responses to viral threats and long-term planning for disease prevention, and will be applicable to other viral diseases beyond the current COVID-19 crisis.” 

“Thanks to our firm's internal R&D program,” said Anna Mehrotra, Ph.D., P.E., CDM Smith envi­ron­men­tal engineer, “we were able to mobilize quickly to apply our skills and connect with other strategic thinkers to help."

The project team is currently seeking utility partners and additional funding sources. The research effort is expected to expand in the coming weeks and months.

CDM Smith provides lasting and integrated solutions in water, environment, trans­porta­tion, energy and facilities to public and private clients worldwide. As a full-service engineering and construc­tion firm, we deliver exceptional client service, quality results and enduring value across the entire project life cycle.

Editor's note: This news item was updated with client information.