Wastewater Sequencing Reveals Early Cryptic SARS-CoV-2 Variant Transmission

Nature 609(7925):101–108 (2022).

Karthikeyan S, Levy JI, De Hoff P, Humphrey G, Birmingham A, Jepsen K, Farmer S, Tubb HM, Valles T, Tribelhorn CE, Tsai R, Aigner S, Sathe S, Moshiri N, Henson B, Mark AM, Hakim A, Baer NA, Barber T, Belda-Ferre P, Chacón M, Cheung W, Cresini ES, Eisner ER, Lastrella AL, Lawrence ES, Marotz CA, Ngo TT, Ostrander T, Plascencia A, Salido RA, Seaver P, Smoot EW, McDonald D, Neuhard RM, Scioscia AL, Satterlund AM, Simmons EH, Abelman DB, Brenner D, Bruner JC, Buckley A, Ellison M, Gattas J, Gonias SL, Hale M, Hawkins F, Ikeda L, Jhaveri H, Johnson T, Kellen V, Kremer B, Matthews G, McLawhon RW, Ouillet P, Park D, Pradenas A, Reed S, Riggs L, Sanders A, Sollenberger B, Song A, White B, Winbush T, Aceves CM, Anderson C, Gangavarapu K, Hufbauer E, Kurzban E, Lee J, Matteson NL, Parker E, Perkins SA, Ramesh KS, Robles-Sikisaka R, Schwab MA, Spencer E, Wohl S, Nicholson L, Mchardy IH, Dimmock DP, Hobbs CA, Bakhtar O, Harding A, Mendoza A, Bolze A, Becker D, Cirulli ET, Isaksson M, Schiabor Barrett KM, Washington NL, Malone JD, Schafer AM, Gurfield N, Stous S, Fielding-Miller R, Garfein RS, Gaines T, Anderson C, Martin NK, Schooley R, Austin B, MacCannell DR, Kingsmore SF, Lee W, Shah S, McDonald E, Yu AT, Zeller M, Fisch KM, Longhurst C, Maysent P, Pride D, Khosla PK, Laurent LC, Yeo GW, Andersen KG, Knight R.

As SARS-CoV-2 continues to spread and evolve, detecting emerging variants early is critical for public health interventions. Inferring lineage prevalence by clinical testing is infeasible at scale, especially in areas with limited resources, participation, or testing/sequencing capacity, which can also introduce biases1-3. SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentration in wastewater successfully tracks regional infection dynamics and provides less biased abundance estimates than clinical testing4,5. Tracking virus genomic sequences in wastewater would improve community prevalence estimates and detect emerging variants. However, two factors limit wastewater-based genomic surveillance: low-quality sequence data and inability to estimate relative lineage abundance in mixed samples. Here, we resolve these critical issues to perform a high-resolution, 295-day wastewater and clinical sequencing effort, in the controlled environment of a large university campus and the broader context of the surrounding county. We develop and deploy improved virus concentration protocols and deconvolution software that fully resolve multiple virus strains from wastewater. We detect emerging variants of concern up to 14 days earlier in wastewater samples, and identify multiple instances of virus spread not captured by clinical genomic surveillance. Our study provides a scalable solution for wastewater genomic surveillance that allows early detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants and identification of cryptic transmission.

Media Coverage (selected)
JAMA – Study: New Wastewater Surveillance Method Detected SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern Up to 2 Weeks Before Clinical Tests
Time – Scientists Have a New Tool for Tracking COVID-19 Variants: Human Waste
Nature – COVID Variants Found in Sewage Weeks Before Showing Up In Tests
Nature Microbiology – Wastewater Monitoring Comes of Age
Reuters – Wastewater Study Technique Finds Virus Variants Sooner
KPBS – Local Wastewater Project Lauded As Key Tool In COVID Fight
San Diego ABC10 – Researchers Develop New Tools To Detect COVID Variants In Wastewater
San Diego NBC7 – COVID-19 Hospitalizations Rise in San Diego County as Wastewater Data Projects Uptick
NIH – Tracking SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater

Press Release
Scripps Research – Scientists develop tools for early detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants in wastewater