Data privacy, security, and communication are among the ethical issues incorporated into the multidisciplinary University of Miami project “Using Wastewater Measurements to Predict Covid-19 in the Community.” By sampling wastewater flowing from campus buildings, UM researchers can isolate areas where SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—is present several days before individuals test positive for the disease.
“Wastewater sampling is a very powerful public health tool,” said Kenneth W. Goodman, PhD, Director of Data Ethics and Society for the UM Institute for Data Science and Computing (IDSC). “However, you cannot do science without ethics.” For instance, although data collection and analysis for a health threat (like COVID-19 or the mosquito-borne Zika virus that infected South Florida in 2016) are acceptable, the same would not be true of community surveillance for illegal drugs, said Dr. Goodman. Dr. Goodman is also a Professor of Medicine, the Founder and Director of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, Co-Director of the University’s Ethics Programs, and Director of the IDSCprogram.
“When doing data-related research, you also need to be prepared to find unexpected patterns or other results,” he added. “That information can be shared with the community to help shape future decisions.”
For the COVID-19 project, Dr. Goodman will provide ethics oversight and guidance regarding data collection and analysis to help ensure that the process is handled transparently and that the UM community is informed of the study’s goals, progress, and findings. “When conducting research, you want participants to be informed of what you are doing and why,” he said. “That’s, in part, why the University is including data ethics in this initiative.”
The COVID-19 surveillance project, now funded by a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), was based on studies showing the virus appeared in wastewater several days before individuals came down with symptoms. “This knowledge could be invaluable to protecting our students, staff, faculty, and hopefully, our communities,” said Helena Solo-Gabriele, PhD. Dr. Solo-Gabrielle is an environmental engineering professor who launched this research study last summer with George Grills, Associate Director of Shared Resources at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.
Since then, UM researchers have expanded the program, taking samples from a Miami-Dade County wastewater plant to correlate with local COVID-19 positivity data. This will help refine the UM computer model and scale up the research to see the amount of virus present in a sample of up to 800,000 people.
“In pandemic situations, we need to have real-time data collection, analysis, and prediction systems at our fingertips,” said Dr. Solo-Gabriele. “I wish we had this system at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. But at least now we have it, moving forward, so that if the illnesses change you can monitor that through wastewater.”
“Lessons we’ve learned on bioethics and related issues will support future efforts to leverage environmental monitoring of viral prevalence,” said George Grills, Associate Director of Shared Resources for the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center and a member of the project’s leadership team. “This will help predict and mitigate future disease outbreaks.”
For more information on the COVID wastewater project, visit: https://covidsfrad.org/
Story by Richard Westlund | Photo of Dr. Walter Lamar collecting wastewater in haz mat suit.