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Chicago, U of I embark on $2 million program to detect COVID in sewage

Health officials believe they can act more quickly to address threats by identifying the virus in wastewater samples before large outbreaks occur.

City and University of Illinois researchers are going to analyze sewage samples for COVID-19 analysis over the next two years.

The city’s Health Department will work with a team of University of Illinois researchers to monitor COVID-19 in wastewater as part of a $2 million program over the next two years.

The aim of the project is to collect sewage samples in order to detect the virus and potentially predict future outbreaks. The virus is detectable in human waste from the beginning of infection well before symptoms show up in people, researchers say.

Measuring the amount of virus in sewage can point to community trends that help health officials pinpoint their response and control efforts during the pandemic.

“This and other data systems enable [the health department] to continue to focus our efforts on the communities that need it most,” Chicago Public Health Commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady said in a statement.

The Health Department is funding the program through $2.14 million provided by the federal government. The city is working the U of I’s Discovery Partners Institute.

The program will add to research from prior projects Discovery Partners embarked on, including development of a statewide wastewater monitoring system, and a privately funded program that analyzed sewer samples around Cook County Jail and O’Hare Airport.

Wastewater samples will be analyzed at U of I Chicago and genetic sequencing of the material will be conducted at Argonne National Lab to identify variants of the virus.

Illinois is seeing a surge in COVID cases and health officials are worried that the Omicron variant, the latest version of the virus, will add to the crisis. Meanwhile, city health officials struggle to improve vaccination rates in many communities even though there are ample vaccine supplies.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.