UMaine researcher briefs Congress on wastewater disease surveillance

A University of Maine researcher spoke in a Congressional briefing about successful efforts led by the University of Maine System to use wastewater testing to keep classes and labs open during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Robert T. Wheeler, a professor of microbiology at the University of Maine, testified May 14 as an expert witness at a hearing sponsored by U.S. Sen. Angus King and the American Society for Microbiology as Congress considers ongoing funding for the National Wastewater Surveillance System. 

Wheeler was part of an interdisciplinary team that leveraged its expertise to help UMaine and the System respond to the challenges presented by SARS-COV-2. He created and led a COVID-19 monitoring initiative at UMaine that tested wastewater to predict outbreaks on campus and in the town of Orono. The approach was far more affordable and less demanding than testing the entire campus population every week, scaling well from small municipal water districts like the one for Orono to large metropolitan areas. 

“Developing and implementing a systemwide testing program was possible even on a limited budget, and gave us a twice weekly reading on COVID levels at our campuses,” Wheeler said in his prepared testimony.

Wheeler highlighted the benefits of wastewater testing in a state like Maine, where a spread out population and limited resources make directly testing a representative sample of the community unfeasible. Maintaining networks established through the National Wastewater Surveillance System during the COVID-19 pandemic will facilitate faster responses to future disease outbreaks and support further improvements to wastewater surveillance, Wheeler said. 

“This national system is incredibly useful, but it took a lot of time, coordination and effort to put together our national wastewater surveillance system. So it makes sense to keep it running and ready for the next pandemic — whether it is Ebola, swine flu or something none of us have even heard of yet. It has already been repurposed to identify potentially dangerous pockets of bird flu, providing rapid data nationwide on the risks of this potentially dangerous new form of influenza.”

When he is not wielding his laboratory acumen to combat a pandemic, Wheeler studies the primordial war between pathogens and their hosts to understand how these interactions influence disease and treatment. In the long term, Wheeler expects his research will identify new means to prevent and treat fatal fungal infections in immunocompromised patients. 

Wheeler’s remarks continue a long tradition of experts from Maine’s R1 research university informing the work of Congress. In August, University of Maine President Joan Ferrini-Mundy made remarks at a listening session of the U.S. House Committee on Agriculture about priorities for the 2023 Farm Bill. 

In a formal written testimony to the committee, Ferrini-Mundy, who also serves as the UMS vice chancellor for research and innovation, detailed the importance of investments in land grant education, research and service to the success of Maine and the nation. 

“Perhaps nowhere is the success of agriculture and dependent rural communities more intertwined with the activities and capacity of a land grant university than here in Maine with our flagship university,” she wrote. 

In 2022, Rachel Schattman, a UMaine assistant professor of sustainable agriculture, served as an expert witness at a Congressional hearing about how farmers can mitigate and adapt to climate change. The university’s liaison to the forest products industry, Shane O’Neill, testified about workforce development and innovation in that sector at the invitation of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee’s Conservation and Forestry Subcommittee that same year.

Erin Miller: