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On the Viral Politics of Wastewater Epidemiology

photograph of PCR reverse transcriptase machine

PCR reverse transcriptase machine. Image by Rachel Vaughn.

In August 2021, I was invited by the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalization to speak on the theme of Viral Politics with a plenary panel, including Visualizing the Virus’ founder extraordinaire Sria Chaterjee, and the ever-insightful feminist STS theorist Astrid Schraeder, with symposium organizer Eben Kirksey facilitating. This live-streamed, two-day event proved the perfect opportunity to explore questions I have concerning the biopolitical complexities of the practice and possibilities of wastewater epidemiology in pandemic times. A method of ascertaining, or even surveilling, snapshots of public health by analyzing wastewater pollutants, viral presence or other biomarkers and compounds, wastewater tracing is often touted as an early warning viral monitoring system. Beyond present global pandemic applications, it has been used to track many other biological and chemical compounds, from the impacts of common chemical pollutants in everyday household products, Norovirus to Hepatitis A to opioids. As I crafted this essay—now published in Society & Space (April 2022) and shared here for Visualizing the Virus readers—the topic continued to attract media coverage, featuring in popular debate as a useful methodology for our pandemic now. New data and scholarship in the worlds of microbiology, epidemiology, environmental science (and beyond) surfaced daily. Mere days after ADI’s event, my own institution, UCLA, announced that they too would include wastewater monitoring for presence of SARS CoV-2 amongst the multiple protocols and tactics for an autumn return to campus after 18 months of online learning.

photograph of test tubes for extracting and amplifying RNA from the wastewater to test for SARS CoV-2 tracing

Test tubes for extracting and amplifying RNA from the wastewater to test for SARS CoV-2 tracing. Image by Rachel Vaughn.

As an interdisciplinarily trained food and waste scholar, exploring the political and material import of that which is rendered rotten, useless, lifeless or over-and-done has long propelled my research on waste metabolism and revalue. In this piece I analyze the scientific literature, the popular culture excitement swirling around wastewater epidemiology as a tool for viral tracing and pandemic ‘management’, and I consider the complex stakes involved. Reflecting on the essay’s recent publication, I continue to be struck by three key factors concerning wastewater tracing:

1) In spite of the sudden uptick in media coverage of this environmental monitoring tool, the methodology is neither new, nor is it without profound community intricacies and impacts.

2) As I write in the article, the presence (or absence) of viral particles in wastewater is not cut-and-dried information. Broader questions about the social life of disease and infrastructures of care are sparked by such evidence. For example, the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater reflects the public health initiatives in place, as well as those that are lacking. It should likewise prompt important public questions concerning the use of and control over biomonitoring data once collected; the original goals and motivations for that data collection; and the kinds of community (re)actions data release may prompt.

3) Finally, reading the science and writing about wastewater epidemiology has motivated me to continue to ask: Does viral tracing by way of wastewater prompt care? What kinds of care might this form of viral tracing prompt? That environmental monitoring has the power and technological capacity to offer snapshots of viral presence, or early signs of outbreak, is evident. However, does this data also increase policing and surveillance, and if so, of whom and to what end? Does sewer-shed monitoring in pandemic times, for instance, amount to greater, faster, more equitably available public or collective pandemic healthcare resources and protections; or does it simply increase individual-centric healthcare monitoring for those who have the means? What can we make of policing initiatives around the world that have long utilized this methodology to root out evidence of drug use? Has increased policing by way of sewer-shed monitoring to detect specific compounds found in drugs like opioids, for instance, ultimately changed the multifaceted landscape of addiction or the care it calls for within the communities impacted? Similarly, does increased surveillance alter the landscape of viral transmission? And in what way? These are just a few of the questions that persist now that the essay is circulating in the world, and as I pursue ongoing exploration of the multiple meanings of wastewater data, the microbes detected, the privatized biotechnological patents this data may spark, and the various forms of surveillance (epidemiological, microbial, community) it signifies.

Acknowledgements: I thank the fantastic editorial staff of Visualizing the Virus for all of their hard work. I extend a hearty thanks to our fearless leader Angeliki Balayannis—for her inspirational research and curatorial labor in weaving this waste cluster together, and for bringing it to life in such complex times.