Two weeks ago, on September 24, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) published a solicitation for the creation of a new “early warning system” that would “detect and track traces of the [corona]virus in community wastewater, compile the data, [and] conduct predictive analysis” in order to “guide reopening and mitigation strategies, and also serve as leading indicator for local re-emergence events to enable rapid containment.” HHS was seeking a contractor to design the new Covid-19 detection system, hoping, it said, to have this new system operational in at least forty-two US states by the end of year.
The first phase of the proposed project would involve testing and reporting from approximately one hundred wastewater treatment plants across the United States, covering an estimated 10 percent of the population. HHS, per the solicitation, reserves the option to expand the program to include up to 320 wastewater treatment plants, covering around 30 percent of the population. The solicitation claimed that wastewater testing would allow HHS officials to predict new Covid-19 cases five to eleven days before an outbreak.
The initiative appears to be an expansion of a “new public health tool” announced last month by HHS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) called the National Wastewater Surveillance System. This tool was originally intended to “help public health officials to better understand the extent of COVID-19 infections in communities.” Per the recent HHS solicitation, however, the wastewater surveillance system will now be used to predict outbreaks before they occur and to guide “rapid containment” efforts in “at-risk” communities.
At the core of this new early warning system based on wastewater surveillance is a secretive data platform that HHS launched earlier this year called HHS Protect. HHS describes Protect as “a secure platform for authentication, amalgamation, and sharing of healthcare information” that combines “more than 200 disparate data sources” from federal, state, and local governments as well as the private health-care industry.