FAQ

Decorative wave

How it works

Who is Biobot Analytics?

Founded at MIT, Biobot Analytics is a wastewater epidemiology company that analyzes sewage to provide public health analytics. We have worked in hundreds of communities across every US state and have partnered with the CDC, the World Bank, and others.

What is wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE)?

Wastewater-based epidemiology is the science of analyzing sewage to better understand the public health impact of certain pathogens and chemical compounds within a population. Wastewater contains valuable information on human health because viruses, bacteria, and chemical metabolites are excreted in urine and stool.

What can wastewater analysis detect?

Wastewater analysis can detect a broad range of biological and chemical markers, including SARS-CoV-2 and its variants, the influenza virus, high risk substances (such as opioids), and more.

What are the advantages of wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE)?

Wastewater data is:

  • Equitable: WBE can serve anyone who uses a bathroom. It does not rely on an individual’s access to or use of healthcare, providing a holistic and inclusive view of epidemiological disease trends.
  • Anonymized: Wastewater data represents an aggregate sample of human waste. It is inherently anonymous and cannot be traced back to individuals.
  • Cost-Effective: One sample is representative of many individuals in a building or community (e.g. a town or city).
  • Flexible: WBE systems can pivot to track the emergence and spread of newly identified infectious diseases, or diseases that are beginning to spread in areas where they were not previously circulating.
  • Timely: Because wastewater testing doesn’t need to wait for individuals to become symptomatic, seek medical care, and get tested, WBE can provide very timely data.
    • For Covid-19: Wastewater data is both an independent indicator of virus activity, and may reflect trends sooner than case data because of the multiple steps involved before an infected individual is counted as a case. Many states have reduced their case updates to once a week, further delaying case information.
  • Comprehensive: WBE is particularly well-suited to detect diseases with a mitigate outbreaks caused by diseases with nonspecific symptoms and/or a pre-symptomatic shedding period (e.g. Covid-19), or diseases spread primarily by asymptomatic carriers (e.g. Hepatitis C).
    • For Covid-19: All active infections are captured by wastewater analysis, regardless of one’s vaccination status or the presence of symptoms.

Why is it important to continue to monitor wastewater for Covid-19?

  • At this stage in the pandemic, fewer Covid-19 cases are reported because take-home antigen tests are widely available and vaccination has boosted the population’s immunity.
  • As a result, clinical testing data has become less dependable, and public health officials are forced to rely on lagging indicators of viral spread, such as hospitalizations and deaths.
  • This is why wastewater monitoring will play an even more important role in containing the spread of the virus as life returns to normal.

Sampling

How does sampling with Biobot work?

  • Samplers (typically located at a wastewater treatment plant or manhole) collect 24-hour composite samples of preferably raw influent (untreated wastewater).
  • Samples are packaged in our pre-made kits, then sent via Fed-Ex overnight shipping to our lab in Cambridge, MA (using pre-paid shipping labels).
  • Our lab analyzes the samples and sends reports 1-3 business days later.
  • Our Covid-19 report provides an overview of samples’ SARS-CoV-2 concentrations, their trends over time, and how they compare to other samples in our database.

Methods

Which variants of SARS-CoV-2 can Biobot detect?

Our qPCR assay detects all known variants (and the original strain), and our genomic sequencing methods can delineate variant-specific data.

How does Biobot monitor SARS-CoV-2 variants through wastewater analysis?

  • We use whole genome sequencing to identify SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in wastewater.
  • Each variant has a unique set of genetic mutations we use to identify and calculate percentages of variants and subvariants present in a given sample.
  • We track and report on a subset of variants of concern designated by the CDC and WHO circulating in the US. See our public dashboard for the list of variants we are currently tracking.

What’s the difference between qPCR and genomic sequencing?

  • Unlike whole genome sequencing, our qPCR methods target a specific region of the SARS-CoV-2 genome and measure its abundance, which we use to quantify the total amount of SARS-CoV-2 in each sample.
  • Our whole genome sequencing methods look at the entire genome, letting us identify variant specific mutations and determine relative percentages of each variant/ subvariant in each sample.
  • qPCR methods can be variant-specific, but these must be updated whenever there’s a new variant circulating. Using genomic sequencing for variant monitoring is more flexible and allows us to detect new variants right away.

How does Biobot normalize for inflow and infiltration?

We normalize the SARS-CoV-2 viral concentration to a fecal strength indicator to account for differences in dilution or fecal content between samples. The fecal indicator we use is the pepper mild mottle virus (PMMV), an RNA virus that is commonly excreted in stool.

Can wastewater analysis be applied to local settings, like buildings?

  • Yes – we monitor Covid-19 within many universities, businesses, and congregate living facilities nationwide.
  • Our building-level analysis is a cost-effective, unobtrusive way to reveal active SARS-CoV-2 infections in ways that other building-specific mitigation strategies (e.g. health screenings) cannot.

Where can I find Biobot’s methods in more detail?

See our release notes or our Github page.

Data

How well does Biobot data reflect Covid-19 cases?

  • Very well. Throughout the pandemic, our dataset—drawn from large and small communities across the country—accurately reflected both localized peaks and nationwide surges.
  • When the availability of reliable clinical reporting fluctuated during the Omicron wave, our data showed much higher levels of Covid-19 than reported cases. As asymptomatic cases, at-home tests, testing fatigue, and other factors impact clinical reporting in subsequent waves, wastewater data will continue to be a strong, independent (yet complementary) indicator of the total number of infections.

Do variants skew the data?

We have not seen evidence of any substantial change in SARS-CoV-2 fecal shedding due to any of the variants, including Delta and Omicron. In fact, wastewater data provided an estimate of clinical case under-reporting during the Omicron wave.

Does vaccination affect wastewater data?

No. The vaccine is not a live virus, does not cause an infection, and is not shed in stool. Vaccination and boosting reduces the total number of infections in a community, but we have not seen evidence that vaccination substantially changed the per capita fecal shedding of the virus. Read our blog post here for more.

Do reinfections skew the data?

No. From the point of view of wastewater, they are the same as a normal infection.