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Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Goals

Wastewater-based epidemiology should warn of emerging viral hotspots up to a week earlier than traditional tests, and give public health workers valuable time to mobilize. The program, however, will be important for additional and future public health concerns.

Safeguarding the public from contagions: Our story

Wastewater-based epidemiology — the testing of raw sewage for pathogens such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus — provides a non-invasive, cost-effective way to measure community health, including in areas where clinical testing may be underutilized or unavailable. It is a leap forward in extending health equity to people without access to medical care.

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the Discovery Partners Institute, University of Illinois Chicago, Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory formed a science team to track the coronavirus in wastewater. Working from scratch in 2020, the team chose collection sites, based on social vulnerability, and a workflow for collecting and analyzing samples from treatment plants and sewers in neighborhoods, airports and jails. Implementation involved a unique public-private partnership, including City of Chicago, Cook County, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, nonprofit organization Current Water and private contractors, which evolved into a surveillance system adopted by the Chicago Department of Public Health in 2021.

The Illinois Department of Public Health engaged the team, also in 2021, to build the Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System. The collection and transport of statewide samples required a new approach to logistics. A network of wastewater treatment plant operators volunteered to offer samples and a high-throughput lab was developed at UIC to process 150 samples a week, leading to designation as a national Wastewater Center of Excellence. Argonne developed methods to sequence wastewater samples, providing data on COVID-19 variants at a scope, speed and quality not previously seen and yielding Illinois’s first detections of the BA.2 and BA.4 variants. Northwestern headed efforts to enhance and customize data analytics for Illinois public health needs while DPI managed program logistics.

By late 2022, we were collecting samples from over 85 locations, providing reliable, crucial public health information for 9 million Illinoisans at a cost of less than $1 per person each year. To date, over 6,500 samples have been analyzed and close to 5,000 samples have been sequenced. Total funding, largely from the city and state public health departments, comes to more than $17 million and extends the surveillance through mid-2023.

Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Team Leaders

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Rachel Poretsky

University of Illinois at Chicago: Associate Professor, Biological Sciences


Laura Clements

Discovery Partners Institute: Senior Project Manager


Sandra Gesing

Discovery Partners Institute: Scientific Outreach and DEI Lead

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Sarah Owens

Argonne National Laboratory: Sequencing Laboratory Manager, Biosciences Division

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Aaron Packman

Northwestern University: Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering

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Abhilasha Shrestha

University of Illinois at Chicago: Research Assistant Professor, Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences

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Charlie Catlett

Argonne National Laboratory and the University of Chicago: Senior Computer Scientist

Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Team Members


Ahmed Abokifa

University of Illinois at Chicago, Assistant Professor; Civil, Materials, and Environmental Engineering

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Mark Grippo

Argonne National Laboratory: Ecologist, Environmental Science Division

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Erica Hartmann

Northwestern University: Assistant Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering


Katelyn Leisman

Northwestern University: Visiting Assistant Professor, Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics

Mangan Niall

Niall Mangan

Northwestern University: Assistant Professor, Engineering Sciences and Applied Mathematics

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David Morton

Northwestern University: Professor, Industrial Engineering and Management Sciences

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Melissa Pierce

Discovery Partners Institute: Research Software Engineer

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Anuj Tiwari

Discovery Partners Institute: Postdoctoral Research Scientist

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George Wells

Northwestern University: Associate Professor, Civil and Environmental Engineering


Krystal White

Discovery Partners Institute: Project Manager

Wastewater-Based Epidemiology Team in the News

Illinois Department of Public Health and the Discovery Partners Institute Announce Statewide System to Monitor COVID-19 in Wastewater


The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) and the Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) today announced a statewide system to monitor the virus that causes COVID-19 and its variants in wastewater, providing public health officials with early warnings of a potential outbreak on a county-by-county basis.

NBC 5 Investigates: Searching The Sewers For COVID-19 at the Cook County Jail


“You know, I wanted to get as far out front of determining what the positivity rate was in the jail,” Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart told NBC5. “It’s just a proactive thing that I really wanted to do.”

The process is complex, but the premise is rather simple. After all, anyone infected with the virus sheds evidence of it in their waste…

Argonne scientists track community spread of COVID-19 in wastewater


Wastewater provides a clue to virus transmission.

In the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, finding ways to improve testing has been key to addressing the spread of disease. While much effort has focused on testing individual people, scientists have begun to explore large-scale sampling of wastewater to understand patterns of viral transmission over larger areas.

Researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory are participating in a pilot study to sample wastewater at some of the Chicago area’s wastewater treatment plants…

Walder Foundation Awards Discovery Partners Institute $1.25 Million

DPI Press Release

The Walder Foundation has awarded a Discovery Partners Institute (DPI) science team led by the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) $1.25 million to develop a prototype capability for detecting COVID-19 outbreaks and trends in Chicago’s wastewater.

The goal of the Chicago Prototype Coronavirus Assessment Network Node, or PCANN, is to create a non-invasive, cost-effective way to examine community spread of the virus, by monitoring its initial appearance or changes over time in the city’s wastewater systems…