The impact of signal variability on epidemic growth rate estimation from wastewater surveillance data

Ewan Colman, Rowland R. Kao

Background Testing samples of waste water for markers of infectious disease became a widespread method of surveillance during the COVID-19 pandemic. While these data generally correlate well with other indicators of national prevalence, samples that cover localised regions tend to be highly variable over short time scales.

Methods We introduce a procedure for estimating the realtime growth rate of pathogen prevalence using time series data from wastewater sampling. The number of copies of a target gene found in a sample is modelled as time-dependent random variable whose distribution is estimated using maximum likelihood. The output depends on a hyperparameter that controls the sensitivity to variability in the underlying data. We apply this procedure to data reporting the number of copies of the N1 gene of SARS-CoV-2 collected at water treatment works across Scotland between February 2021 and February 2023.

Results The real-time growth rate of the SARS-CoV-2 prevalence is estimated at 121 wastewater sampling sites covering a diverse range of locations and population sizes. We find that the sensitivity of the fitting procedure to natural variability determines its reliability in detecting the early stages of an epidemic wave. Applying the procedure to hospital admissions data, we find that changes in the growth rate are detected an average of 2 days earlier in wastewater than in hospital admissions data.

Conclusion We provide a robust method to generate reliable estimates of epidemic growth from highly variable data. Applying this method to samples collected at wastewater treatment works provides highly responsive situational awareness to inform public health.

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