Skip to Main Content

The two-year extension will enable real-time monitoring of contagious diseases beyond COVID-19

February 21, 2023 (CHICAGO) —The Discovery Partners Institute (DPI), part of the University of Illinois System, announced today that it is expanding its wastewater surveillance in Chicago beyond the virus that causes COVID-19 under a Chicago Department of Public Health (CDPH) agreement that extends their disease-control efforts into mid-2024.

While continuing to measure the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in city neighborhoods, the DPI-led scientific team is now also analyzing wastewater for evidence of influenza A and B. The new agreement permits this search to grow to include other pathogens, such as the polio or monkeypox viruses, should they emerge as public health concerns.

The $2.36 million contract seamlessly maintains the pioneering disease tracking that DPI and its partners at the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC), Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University began in Chicago in October 2021 under the initial $2.14 million contract with CDPH.

With the increase of at-home COVID-19 testing, wastewater surveillance has become essential in monitoring the level of SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, at the community level.

“We are gratified to be able to carry on in our vital role in safeguarding the health of the 2.7 million people who live in Chicago,” said Sandra Gesing, Ph.D., DPI wastewater team lead and senior research scientist. “We have proven that wastewater surveillance is a cost-effective, accurate and anonymous means to detect contagious disease.”

“Data from our wastewater surveillance program has helped support public health strategies by providing crucial information about how COVID-19 is circulating across Chicago communities,” said Massimo Pacilli, deputy commissioner of CDPH’s Disease Control Bureau. “Extending this program will help us collect more data over time to adapt our response to future increases in COVID cases as well as other viruses throughout the city.”

DPI assembled its wastewater surveillance science team in 2020 with seed grant funding that was quickly followed by a $1.25 million grant from the Walder Foundation. Since then, crews have collected samples of raw sewage twice a week from carefully selected maintenance holes in Chicago neighborhoods as well as O’Hare International Airport and other key facilities.

The samples are delivered to a microbiology lab at UIC, where they are screened for telltale bits of virus that are excreted by people who’ve been infected. Scientists at Argonne then sequence the results to tally which variants are present. Northwestern assists in data modeling and analysis. Findings are reviewed by CDPH, which posts them on its wastewater webpage.

The same process now will be used to uncover the evidence of other communicable diseases, beginning with influenza.

Separately, under a contract with the Illinois Department of Public Health, the DPI team gathers sewage samples from more than 75 wastewater treatment sites throughout metro Chicago and the rest of the state to track the ebbs and flows of COVID-19 and, since last fall, influenza A and B. The SARS-CoV-2 data is now publicly available for each community at a DPI-hosted website.