Detecting COVID-19 gets murkier ahead of winter months

A quarter of the nation's CDC-sponsored wastewater testing sites are shut down indefinitely as the agency looks to replace the firm it has worked with on wastewater surveillance since 2020, sparking concerns among public health officials that the nation will have little insight into COVID-19's spread as colder months arrive, Politico reported Oct. 26. 

Earlier this year, the agency decided to replace Biobot, the company it had a contract with since the start of the pandemic to test wastewater for the COVID-19 virus. It opted for a new contract with Verily, a subsidiary of Google's parent company. However, that transition is on pause as the Government Accountability Office hears an appeal filed by Biobot. That decision is not due until January. 

"The thing I'm concerned about is continuity of our surveillance data while this protest is playing out," Chad Gubala, a wastewater official in Alaska, told Politico

The CDC hasn't provided details on why it decided to change contractors, though cost is likely a factor, as the deal with Verily was considerably less expensive. In an interview with the news outlet, CDC Director Mandy Cohen, MD, declined to comment on the matter, calling it a "contracting situation." 

Public health experts say wastewater surveillance is one of most significant remaining ways to monitor the virus's spread now that most people are testing at home. Experts look to wastewater surveillance as an early indicator of what's to come, since people can shed the virus in their stool days before they have any symptoms. 

"The existing gap in the wastewater data will continue for possibly several months as we head into flu season and another COVID surge," an epidemiologist at one state health department who wasn't authorized to speak publicly told the news outlet. "It's not as easy as just handing off the keys to Verily." 

COVID-19 metrics have been declining in the U.S. for weeks. Based on past trends, however, experts predict the nation may see another winter uptick in December or January — the same time of the year flu tends to peak. 


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