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 and/or 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 developed and deployed improved virus concentration protocols and deconvolution software that fully resolve multiple virus strains from wastewater. We detected emerging variants of concern up to 14 days earlier in wastewater samples, and identified 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.
Subject(s)COVID-19 , SARS-CoV-2 , Wastewater-Based Epidemiological Monitoring , Wastewater , COVID-19/epidemiology , COVID-19/transmission , COVID-19/virology , Humans , RNA, Viral/analysis , RNA, Viral/genetics , SARS-CoV-2/classification , SARS-CoV-2/genetics , SARS-CoV-2/isolation & purification , Sequence Analysis, RNA , Wastewater/virology
A promising approach to help students safely return to in person learning is through the application of sentinel cards for accurate high resolution environmental monitoring of SARS-CoV-2 traces indoors. Because SARS-CoV-2 RNA can persist for up to a week on several indoor surface materials, there is a need for increased temporal resolution to determine whether consecutive surface positives arise from new infection events or continue to report past events. Cleaning sentinel cards after sampling would provide the needed resolution but might interfere with assay performance. We tested the effect of three cleaning solutions (BZK wipes, Wet Wipes, RNase Away) at three different viral loads: "high" (4 × 104 GE/mL), "medium" (1 × 104 GE/mL), and "low" (2.5 × 103 GE/mL). RNase Away, chosen as a positive control, was the most effective cleaning solution on all three viral loads. Wet Wipes were found to be more effective than BZK wipes in the medium viral load condition. The low viral load condition was easily reset with all three cleaning solutions. These findings will enable temporal SARS-CoV-2 monitoring in indoor environments where transmission risk of the virus is high and the need to avoid individual-level sampling for privacy or compliance reasons exists. IMPORTANCE Because SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, persists on surfaces, testing swabs taken from surfaces is useful as a monitoring tool. This approach is especially valuable in school settings, where there are cost and privacy concerns that are eliminated by taking a single sample from a classroom. However, the virus persists for days to weeks on surface samples, so it is impossible to tell whether positive detection events on consecutive days are a persistent signal or new infectious cases and therefore whether the positive individuals have been successfully removed from the classroom. We compare several methods for cleaning "sentinel cards" to show that this approach can be used to identify new SARS-CoV-2 signals day to day. The results are important for determining how to monitor classrooms and other indoor environments for SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Surface sampling for SARS-CoV-2 RNA detection has shown considerable promise to detect exposure of built environments to infected individuals shedding virus who would not otherwise be detected. Here, we compare two popular sampling media (VTM and SDS) and two popular workflows (Thermo and PerkinElmer) for implementation of a surface sampling program suitable for environmental monitoring in public schools. We find that the SDS/Thermo pipeline shows superior sensitivity and specificity, but that the VTM/PerkinElmer pipeline is still sufficient to support surface surveillance in any indoor setting with stable cohorts of occupants (e.g., schools, prisons, group homes, etc.) and may be used to leverage existing investments in infrastructure. IMPORTANCE The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has claimed the lives of over 5 million people worldwide. Due to high density occupancy of indoor spaces for prolonged periods of time, schools are often of concern for transmission, leading to widespread school closings to combat pandemic spread when cases rise. Since pediatric clinical testing is expensive and difficult from a consent perspective, we have deployed surface sampling in SASEA (Safer at School Early Alert), which allows for detection of SARS-CoV-2 from surfaces within a classroom. In this previous work, we developed a high-throughput method which requires robotic automation and specific reagents that are often not available for public health laboratories such as the San Diego County Public Health Laboratory (SDPHL). Therefore, we benchmarked our method (Thermo pipeline) against SDPHL's (PerkinElmer) more widely used method for the detection and prediction of SARS-CoV-2 exposure. While our method shows superior sensitivity (false-negative rate of 9% versus 27% for SDPHL), the SDPHL pipeline is sufficient to support surface surveillance in indoor settings. These findings are important since they show that existing investments in infrastructure can be leveraged to slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2 not in just the classroom but also in prisons, nursing homes, and other high-risk, indoor settings.