PATH supports partners to use environmental surveillance to monitor the presence of COVID-19

January 5, 2021 by Deborah Oroszlan

Complementing national COVID-19 surveillance efforts in countries with limited diagnostic capacity to test and trace with expanded data from the environmental surveillance of sewage

Media contact: Lindsay Bosslet | PATH |

Seattle, WA, January 4, 2021 – PATH is pleased to lead a portfolio of projects for the surveillance of COVID-19 infection in low- and middle-income countries. This environmental surveillance project will include data collection from five field deployments in Africa and the Indo Pacific and a dedicated center for curation and pooling of the data to support national and global COVID-19 monitoring and management plans. PATH’s Diagnostics program, part of the organization’s Programs and Innovation division, will lead this collaboration, which also includes the University of Washington, Michigan State University, KWR Water Research Institute, Venthic Technologies, and researchers in countries selected for field data collection.

Environmental surveillance of sewage systems and impacted surface waters has the potential to represent a rapid and cost-effective method to support clinical surveillance and may serve as an early warning system to help identify and manage future COVID-19 outbreaks. SARS-CoV-2 is shed in feces; therefore, assessment of its presence within communal waste streams can be utilized to potentially determine the prevalence of disease within the population contributing to the waste stream. It has been used successfully to monitor infectious diseases such as poliovirus and may be a powerful tool to control COVID-19 outbreaks as it can detect both symptomatic and asymptomatic cases within communities. Environmental surveillance also has the potential to complement national surveillance efforts in countries with more limited capacity to test and trace. Information on the distribution of the virus within communities can then help governments to assess the performance of interventions such as lockdowns and inform response plans regarding opening up community activities or implementing vaccine programs.

“Enteric viruses including SARS-CoV-2 are shed into closed and open waste streams, and detecting these viruses from sewage or fecally contaminated surface water is an accurate early indicator of the presence of viral disease within a population, often before clinical cases present,” states David Boyle, chief scientific officer, PATH Diagnostics program. “Environmental surveillance can assist in understanding the distribution and persistence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, especially in areas where clinical surveillance is absent or very limited.”

“We must ensure we are responding to the pandemic in ways appropriate for the local context,” says Alix Peterson Zwane, CEO of the Global Innovation Fund. “Health systems everywhere are overwhelmed, and this is especially true in those developing economies with lower tracking and testing capabilities. We believe the innovative approach that PATH’s environmental surveillance brings to the pandemic has the potential to significantly accelerate learning we need to effectively mitigate the disastrous health and economic costs we can clearly see happening.”

The cost of widespread clinical screening for COVID-19 is prohibitive and unfeasible in low- and middle-income countries. Using environmental surveillance to complement clinical surveillance will provide accurate and actionable data for decision-making with significantly fewer resources and lower testing costs.

This work is funded by two new grants from the Gates Foundation and the Global Innovation Fund. It will build on other PATH environmental surveillance projects, which have focused on the detection and surveillance of poliovirus and typhoid in sewage, supported by grants from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation and the Gates Foundation.

About the Global Innovation Fund

The Global Innovation Fund (GIF) is a charitable social-first investment fund whose mission is to find, fund, and scale up cost-effective, evidence-based innovations that have the potential to measurably improve the lives of millions of people living on $5 a day or less in the developing world.

About PATH

PATH is a global organization that works to accelerate health equity by bringing together public institutions, businesses, social enterprises, and investors to solve the world’s most pressing health challenges. Our team of innovators comprises 1,400+ employees in offices in 20 countries. With expertise in science, health, economics, technology, advocacy, and dozens of other specialties, PATH develops and scales solutions—including vaccines, drugs, devices, diagnostics, and innovative approaches to strengthening health systems worldwide. We work in more than 70 countries to transform bold ideas into sustainable solutions that improve health and well-being for all, reaching more than 150 million people, on average, each year.

“Environmental surveillance can assist in understanding the distribution and persistence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, especially in areas where clinical surveillance is absent or very limited.”
— David Boyle, chief scientific officer, PATH Diagnostics program