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HHS Chooses Biobot to Test Sewage for COVID-19 Nationwide

The federal government has turned to a startup to expand on its work during the pandemic by implementing a national testing program meant to find COVID-19 outbreaks before in-person testing can reveal them.

Aerial view of a wastewater treatment plant.
Biobot Analytics, a startup that analyzes wastewater to identify levels of COVID-19, opioids and more, has been chosen by the federal government for a national testing program.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is throwing its weight behind both Biobot and the idea of wastewater epidemiology, just as the concept has begun to prove itself in a big way. Over 12 weeks, it will fund testing for COVID-19 at 320 wastewater treatment plants serving 100 million people in 50 states and territories.

“With this contract, hundreds of local communities across the country will be able to leverage data from wastewater to stay on top of COVID-19, especially as we move into later stages of the pandemic and clinical testing ramps down,” said Newsha Ghaeli, president and co-founder of Biobot, in a press release. “The inclusion of genomic sequencing will help monitor COVID-19 variants as they evolve to measure the effectiveness of vaccination programs and other public health initiatives.”

As new cases have declined in the U.S., small, isolated outbreaks have continued to pop up in many states.

Biobot and other companies have been sleuthing in sewage for information about public health for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic offered a golden opportunity to demonstrate the practice’s value. By regularly testing wastewater lines, Biobot showed that it could identify COVID-19 outbreaks before in-person testing programs could, which gave higher education institutions and other entities a way to move faster to prevent the spread of the disease. During the pandemic, the company has tested wastewater for at least 200 agencies across the country.

But the backing of a federal agency could put wind in the sails of wastewater epidemiology by demonstrating its value in many new jurisdictions. And COVID-19 is far from the only use case it offers.

“Beyond COVID-19, this technology can be expanded to monitor seasonal influenza outbreaks, and proactively detect novel viral pathogens and antibiotic resistance,” said Dr. Mariana Matus, CEO and co-founder of Biobot, in the statement. “We are excited to share this vision with HHS and partner to scale a solution to keep our country safe.”

The program will begin in early June, and Biobot is taking enrollment now.