By Lillian Parr
On February 23, the Council on Strategic Risks (CSR) hosted a webinar (video below) titled COVID-19 Response Technologies & Their Future Role in Pathogen Early Warning. While pathogen early warning capabilities have been growing and improving for decades, the current pandemic has provided the impetus to rapidly develop and deploy many cutting-edge capabilities. Many technologies and tools have come into use during this pandemic that empower public health stakeholders and other decision-makers to gain much-needed situational awareness across multiple waves of this pandemic.
To better understand how to leverage and sustain advanced early warning tools to prevent future pandemics, this event dove into some of the key approaches that have been effective in responding to COVID-19, and assessed how they might be applied for addressing future threats.
The event was moderated by CSR CEO and Director of the Nolan Center, Christine Parthemore, and featured two expert panelists from companies that have led the way in developing innovative COVID-19 detection technologies that have proven critical to how we respond to the pandemic.
Dr. Mariana Matus, Cofounder and CEO of Biobot Analytics, shared the unique role of wastewater testing and the tremendous impact it has had on monitoring the COVID-19 pandemic. She explained that Biobot “collects and tests wastewater samples to measure the concentration of the virus that causes COVID-19 through PCR,” noting that “this wastewater data reflects the true level of COVID-19 infection in a city or a town, because not everyone seeks a test.” An especially valuable aspect of wastewater testing is that it can provide information sooner than clinical data—consistently, “wastewater data peaked two weeks prior to clinical data,” giving an early indication of pandemic trends.
Dr. Matus emphasized that “human waste data contains information on our health, on our exposures—therefore, wastewater is not waste, wastewater is a valuable data asset that we all contribute to naturally.” Biobot has worked in 42 states, collecting data on entire cities as well as smaller communities like schools, prisons, and office buildings to understand COVID-19 prevalence and variant trends.
Wastewater testing is not only useful for COVID-19 detection. Dr. Matus explained that “we can really think about wastewater as a versatile platform where you can look at a multitude of threats, natural, man-made, and more complex things too, like antibiotic resistance,” making it a valuable early warning tool.
The second panelist was Matthew McKnight, who is Chief Commercial Officer at Ginkgo Bioworks and leads Concentric by Ginkgo. Mr. McKnight discussed Concentric’s COVID-19 testing programs in K-12 schools and at airports. He highlighted that the pooled cohort testing that Ginkgo conducts is “a starting point to get a baseline of data so that school administrators and public health officials have more information to make good decisions.” Ginkgo works in 24 states and has partnered with 60 labs to assist in processing tests.
Recently, Ginkgo has also partnered with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and XpressCheck, pivoting their infrastructure to conduct testing in airports on passengers from inbound flights. Ginkgo’s voluntary testing program is currently in place at four of the nation’s most highly-trafficked airports: John F. Kennedy International Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport, San Francisco International Airport, and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, and was able to detect the BA.2 and BA.3 sublineages of the Omicron variant early on.
Mr. McKnight noted that this type of pooled testing can be adapted to a variety of biological threats, and can provide the “[information] that is needed to monitor proactively so that you’re able to detect outbreaks before they get out of control, so that you’re able to have early warning to take mitigation efforts of multiple different sorts.”
Both panelists called attention to the sustained investment that developing their technology required, and the continued investment that will be needed to keep the systems warm for the next biological event. Mr. McKnight noted that many of the upfront investments for infectious disease monitoring have already been put forward during this pandemic, but continuing to make use of this infrastructure will require significant financing. Noting that billions are spent each year on modeling and predicting weather, a service that saves a lot of lives and money, Mr. McKnight expressed hope that we will “spend as much on pandemic data collection as we do on weather data collection,” given its critical importance to human health and safety.
In addition, Mr. McKnight and Dr. Matus noted the importance of creative partnerships between the private sector, academia, and government. For instance, Dr. Matus noted that “it was actually wastewater treatment plants that stepped up to Biobot’s call for action—they had the samples and they had relatively flexible funding to pay for the service.” As a fundamental, necessary stakeholder, wastewater treatment plants are critical in Biobot’s efforts, and their contributions have been admirable. However, Dr. Matus noted that financing wastewater testing shouldn’t fall to these companies.
Dr. Matus also discussed the tremendous amount of wastewater data that Biobot has been able to collect “through the support of short-term contract opportunities with federal agencies.” In addition, Biobot’s partnership with Ginkgo supported sequencing efforts, highlighting both the necessity and organic development of collaborations within the private sector. In the same vein, Mr. McKnight explained that Ginkgo, as a synthetic biology company, did not have adequate lab capacity to process samples, leading them to “partner across the country” with academic and private-sector labs “to build national infrastructure” for K-12 testing. These innovative partnerships, in conjunction with an influx of funding from the Biden administration, allowed Ginkgo to realize its goal of testing hundreds of thousands of students a week.
Another key point that both panelists drew attention to is that producing data is not enough—it must be usable and accessible. Dr. Matus pointed out Boston as a successful example of where data sharing is going well, saying that “the data actually goes full-circle, all the way to the health departments, to the governor’s office and team, as well as publicly to the citizens, hospitals, scientists and experts.” It’s important that Boston and the state of Massachusates serve as an example for the rest of the country—“we need to make sure that we can enable that everywhere,” Dr. Matus stressed.
In addition to ensuring data gets to the right people, Dr. Matus emphasized the importance of making data “widely comparable across time, across geographies, and with the ability to emit alerts that are reliable.” Right now, this capability is lacking, “because work is being conducted on a patchwork basis…methods are not standardized and data is not stitched together.” This impedes our national ability to build a networked system of data inputs.
Mr. McKnight echoed these concerns, and also cited another key data consideration: patient privacy, noting that “privacy has to be built as a core tenant” of any disease monitoring system, and must “be at the forefront of the conversation.”
To conclude, Mr. McKnight and Dr. Matus expressed hope that COVID-19 will be a wake-up call for scientists and policy-makers that continuous infectious disease monitoring is crucial in preventing future pandemics.
We are grateful for our two exceptional panelists, and to all of our attendees for their engagement.
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The webinar can be found above or here.