Last year in Michigan, the municipal government of Macomb County, Oakland University, and Michigan State University partnered with water monitoring systems provider Aquasight, launching a pilot program of sewage surveillance for infectious diseases like COVID-19 to enable better healthcare and economic planning. On a recent episode of MPT’s podcast, Aquasight’s founder and CEO, Mahesh Lunani, joined us to discuss this program and its benefits for the future. An excerpt of that conversation follows.

MPT: Just to be clear, no evidence suggests COVID-19 can be transmitted via municipal water systems, but there are benefits to monitoring them for infectious disease. What is this pilot program looking for and how can it help the community?

Mahesh Lunani: This pandemic has brought to the attention that sewage surveillance provides very important, valuable information about infectious diseases. 

So by strategically sampling our collection system using methods and techniques that we already know, that exist in the wastewater treatment plant, and by combining this with more advanced testing methods and concentration methods that are being developed, and honed as we speak, and couple that with understanding about wastewater data, demographics data, as well as the health data that exists around that particular community, this itself to giving early warning of where COVID spread might be occurring. It’s been found that sewage surveillance can provide between three or ten days of advanced notification on the spread or evolution of COVID-19 in a community. 

MPT: How can health officials best make use of this type of data, both during our current pandemic and in preparation for what may come in the future?

Mahesh Lunani: To address a pandemic, we need community-based testing, and sewage surveillance is really community-based testing. And this is complementing the human individual testing that there has been a lot of focus on. The way we see this evolving, is, if public health officials—from governments local and state—want to have a bit more information, more data to make proper health care and economic planning, community based testing is giving strong signals on spread—or, the other way around, if levels are declining, then the health officials can plan their uses of resources.

MPT: That seems to be what’s so useful about a community-based monitoring effort, as part of the problem we see with the pandemic now is trying to play catch up with the facts on the ground. 

Mahesh Lunani: We need both the macro and micro level when we when we attack a problem. And the macro level is like a heat map. Think about this as the heat maps that will show the hotspots and high-risk areas. But there’s also a greater opportunity here: We know, in general, through our smart analytics, that the high-risk areas are within a community. We have a sophisticated model by which we can filter through the high-risk areas based on where we understand how Coronavirus really impacts the old-age population, low-income population, and different levels of the entire demographic spectrum. We could strategically also look for targeted areas for community-based testing through sewage programs, and bring that into the smart analytics platform to be able to show where we think is more risk or less risk.

To listen to an extended version of this interview, be sure to subscribe to MPT’s podcast, The Efficiency Point

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