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Federal Research Priorities to Support Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2



Sally Gutierrez, Nancy Lin, Jessica Sweeney


Almost immediately after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, researchers and wastewater utilities around the world began analyzing untreated wastewater for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA. These efforts were largely based on prior experience analyzing wastewater for poliovirus, presence of opioids, and other contaminants. Early reports from the Netherlands1 indicated that detection of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater signaled the presence of the respiratory virus that causes COVID-19, in the community served by the wastewater utility before reported clinical cases. As word of these efforts spread, the public health community began to take interest in the approach and its value in informing public health responses such as resource allocation, community mitigation strategies (e.g., mask wearing), and resolution to conflicting individual based surveillance data. In the United States, environmental microbiology and engineering researchers and others began to rapidly pivot their focus to this emerging field of science in support of the COVID-19 response. Federal agencies supported the rapid development of this growing field by providing funding for wastewater surveillance research and implementation projects2. The urgency of the pandemic prevented the preparation of a coordinated national level strategy to articulate overall science and technology needs associated with wastewater surveillance. The establishment of the National Sewage Surveillance Inter-Agency Leadership Council (NSSILc) in the summer of 2020, convened by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Assistant Secretary of Health, provided a venue for discussing and coordinating implementation and science and technology needs related to wastewater surveillance across the federal government. NSSILc quickly established two working groups, Implementation and Planning (IP) and Science and Technology Evaluation for Practice (STEP). Shortly thereafter, in the fall of 2020, the United States established a new public health program, the National Wastewater Surveillance System or NWSS3 under the leadership of the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). STEP began by organizing federal agency representatives interested in wastewater surveillance and reviewing available information on the research projects that had been funded by agency extramural programs or were being conducted through agency intramural research programs. Each agency agreed to participate in a process to identify remaining science and technology needs for wastewater-based surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and consider needs that would assist in further use of wastewater surveillance and preparation for future outbreaks and pandemics. This document is the result of that process and presents a consensus set of science and technology needs for the advancement of wastewater surveillance as proposed by the federal agencies represented by STEP. Given the broad range of mission areas, the list of priorities is not organized in order of importance nor does this document provide a linear sequence of research activities. Rather, the priorities are intended to articulate where additional research is needed and are grouped by subject area. This coordinated information can be useful to federal agencies to guide and inform federal extramural and intramural research efforts, evaluate research funding proposals, and potentially inform future funding opportunities. This document does not compel or impose any requirements on the agencies.

Published as an Interagency Report


Wastewater surveillance, microbial detection, interagency report, standards


Gutierrez, S. , Lin, N. and Sweeney, J. (2022), Federal Research Priorities to Support Wastewater Surveillance for SARS-CoV-2, Published as an Interagency Report, [online], (Accessed April 18, 2024)
Created March 30, 2022, Updated March 14, 2023