Wastewater-Based Epidemiology and Urban Governance

Once novel viruses are established within populations, virus hunters are desperate to track their travels and evolutions, especially in densely populated areas such as cities. New start-up biotechnology firms like the US-based BioBot are hunting coronaviruses in cities using biomarkers from municipal sewage, and are expanding their wastewater epidemiology techniques to assess new viral threats across the globe, from Kuwait to South Korea. Indeed, while wastewater-based epidemiology has existed for decades, this method of tracking disease has taken off in the COVID-19 pandemic and become increasingly normalized.

Project Team

Dr. Mohammed Rafi Arefin

Dr. Carolyn Prouse

Dr. Josie Wittmer

Christopher Reimer

Lara Aluko

Kiera McMaster

Project Overview

This new form of biosurveillance mark distinct geographical and temporal shifts from previous biosecurity eras. Whereas waste has historically been considered a source of pathogenic threat to humans, present security efforts are recasting it as vital sources of data and even value for the companies engaged in monitoring efforts. 

These advances, however, raise important questions. WBE is being used to control migrant labourers’ movements and restrict them to their dormitories in Singapore; the technology has long been rolled out in various prisons to detect for opioid usage and, now, COVID-19; and this ‘cost-effective’ surveillance is being normalized in the wake of decreased public spending on robust PCR testing and more precautionary approaches such as masking. 

If you’d like to contribute to this project, please get in touch! We’re particularly interested in hearing and learning from people, organizations, and neighbourhoods who are particularly concerned about the opaque ways in which their data is being collected and used. You can find us here.

Project Goals

Investigate new forms of data, labour, and governance emerging from the developments in Wastewater-Based Epidemiology and wastewater surveillance
Trace new landscapes of valuation created through disease surveillance

Project Funders

SSHRC Insight Grant
Urban Studies Foundation Pandemics and Cities Grant
UBC Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies Grant