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The prize honors pioneering efforts to track COVID-19 through wastewater.

The Discovery Partners Institute is the winner of a Chicago Innovation Award for its leadership in monitoring the ebb and flow of COVID-19 in Chicago and Illinois by detecting the virus’ presence in wastewater.

DPI, which is part of the University of Illinois System, assembled one of the first teams in the nation to reliably analyze samples of raw sewage for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in 2021, providing real-time information to help both the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois Department of Public Health during the pandemic.

Since then, its network has expanded to more than 80 monitoring sites measuring the exposure of more than 8 million people in Illinois to COVID-19, or more than two-thirds of the state’s population. DPI and Shield T3, a for-profit startup spun out of University of Illinois, are also conducting a pilot program to test wastewater for the coronavirus at public schools.

Drawing from these experiences, DPI additionally is partnering with the University of Illinois Chicago and Rush University Medical Center to collect and analyze wastewater to identify the presence of potentially deadly antibiotic-resistant organisms in long-term care facilities. And the DPI team recently began screening sewage samples for influenza A and B for the state.

“We are proud to be recognized by the Chicago Innovation judges after less than three years of DPI really getting off the ground,” DPI Executive Director Bill Jackson said. “Our success in wastewater surveillance shows the promise of our mission, which is to bring together the best minds in greater Chicago and beyond to solve some of the toughest problems facing society.”

The Illinois Wastewater Surveillance System is a collaboration between the IDPH and the DPI-led team which, in addition to UIC, includes Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory. Under a separate contract, DPI and those same partners provide similar services for CDPH.

“This honor belongs to our entire team,” said Laura Clements, DPI’s senior project manager for R&D. “Each one is crucial to the success of this undertaking — we literally couldn’t have accomplished this without them.”

Genetic material from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 is excreted in the feces and urine of infected people even if they have no symptoms. Suspended in raw sewage, these telltales eventually make their way into wastewater treatment facilities.

More than 75 wastewater treatment plants in metro Chicago and elsewhere in Illinois voluntarily submit sewage samples to the DPI team twice weekly. These are analyzed at a high-throughput lab built by UIC and then sent to Argonne for genetic sequencing to identify variants.

In Chicago, DPI partners with Current to draw samples from specific neighborhood sewers to get a more localized picture of COVID-19 trends, and at O’Hare International Airport to spot new variants that travelers might be bringing into the area.

Results are shared with public health decision-makers, wastewater plant operators and the public through a variety of mechanisms, including online dashboards. DPI and Northwestern are partnering to interpret and present the data in visual ways.