How to solve the Covid test data problem
It’s not just fatigue setting in, but something else – we’re no longer advised to put normal life on hold for a few more months, as many did until the vaccines, until which the delta decreases, until the first and second omicron waves recede. At a recent symposium hosted by Harvard Medical School, biologists following the Covid pandemic predicted a long purgatory – the situation is much better than 2020, but there is no end in sight for the stream of new variants that continue to evolve to evade immunity.
The only good news here is that technology is advancing and people are not tired of embracing innovations. Wastewater analysis is one of the best technologies to help us assess local risks. It has emerged as the fastest and most reliable source of information on the surges and lulls of the pandemic, as well as which variants are taking over in which regions.
Popular pandemic tracking sites such as the New York Times Covid tracker have become less useful as they rely on PCR testing; most infected people, if tested, use home antigen tests and do not report the results.
Perhaps a better source is now produced by wastewater data company Biobot: biobot.io/data. The company was founded by computational biologist Mariana Matus and urban studies researcher Newsha Ghaeli, who began thinking about the wealth of information about wastewater while working as colleagues at MIT. At present, the site shows cases stabilizing or declining across most of the country, but with increasing flare-ups in a few places in the northeast.
In a Zoom interview, Ghaeli introduced me to the site and showed me how they do sewage measurements across the country. The sewage numbers initially followed the same pattern as the test results, although they rose and fell about a week earlier, as it can take days for an infected person to take a test and for the results to appear. come back. But earlier this year, as tests plummeted, sewage measurements split, showing new hills that weren’t visible from official test data.
While test-based data is skewed by the availability and popularity of PCR testing, wastewater numbers can give us a less biased picture of regional risks. The sewage analysis includes adjustments for population density, Ghaeli said, to estimate the prevalence of the virus per capita.
This kind of data gives Covid-wary people the information they need to reduce their risk. “It’s a bit like looking at the weather data and making a quick decision about bringing an umbrella with me when I go out today,” says Ghaeli. “For me it’s like, am I wearing a mask on the subway today?” she says.
Although Biobot did an impressive job on its own, more data would make these tools even better. A nationally uniform system would better help us track the prevalence of Covid and the ever-more complex range of variants that continue to emerge, says Sam Scarpino, vice president of pathogen surveillance for the Rockefeller Foundation.
It would also be a public health service to make sure the data is presented simply and clearly, so people can check it as easily as they do weather forecasts. And just like the weather, regular “Covid forecasts” should feature in the local news, especially when disaster is imminent.
This kind of data can be a big help for the 57% of people who are still “at least somewhat concerned” about Covid, according to an Axios-Ipsos poll. Most people don’t deny there’s an ongoing pandemic, but neither do we plan to give up socializing or restaurants indefinitely. Better wastewater data is a tool that can enable more people to responsibly calibrate risk in their neighborhoods, but it doesn’t come free – it requires more funding.
One of the doctors present at the Harvard meeting, Jacob Lemieux, told me in a later conversation that he was concerned that it was not just the public, but Congress, that was tired of the pandemic. It’s bad for all of us because Covid remains a major killer, and we need better vaccines, a better understanding of long Covid, continued access to home testing kits and, of course, a funding for wastewater monitoring. Wastewater data is our best hope for staying informed and may even warn us of the next pandemic.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Faye Flam is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering science. She hosts the “Follow the Science” podcast.
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