Protecting people through wastewater evaluation

June 18, 2021

Irene Xagoraraki gets another $2.7 million grant to advance work

Michigan State University has received another $2.7 million for wastewater evaluation and reporting in Southeast Michigan – a continuation of the award-winning research that serves as an early warning system for COVID-19 and other virus-related work in the Detroit area.

Irene Xagoraraki
Irene Xagoraraki

Irene Xagoraraki, professor of environmental engineering, has been funded by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for the project: “SARS-CoV-2 and Variants: Wastewater Surveillance at the Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) Water Resource Recovery Facility (WRRF) and select locations in Wayne, Macomb and Oakland Counties.” Work began on June 1, 2021, and ends July 31, 2023.

“This project focuses on the use of wastewater surveillance to provide early warnings of COVID-19 cases in the Detroit metropolitan area using wastewater treatment plant and community sewer-shed survelliance,” Xagoraraki explained. “Outcomes of this project will provide important information on prediction and control of upcoming peaks for SARs-CoV-2 and variants in the area.”

Vice President for Research and Innovation Doug Gage said Xagoraraki’s work is providing public health officials with an important tool.

“Dr. Xagoraraki’s research is an example of MSU faculty working with community partners to rapidly adapt the investigator’s technology and expertise in waterborne viral detection to monitor and predict COVID spread in the community. Her successful work in SE Michigan can now be leveraged to scale-up this protocol across the country and beyond.”

Neeraj Buch, professor and chairperson of the MSU Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, called her research “translational” and a leading example of how a partnership between public and private sectors, and academia, can develop tools for identifying public health related outbreaks.

“It is heartening to see undergraduate and graduate student researchers working alongside experts to develop testing protocols and tools to predict temporal and spatial fluctuations of COVID 19 in communities,” Buch said. “Those in our college and our department at Michigan State University see extreme long-term value in the early alert system approach developed in Professor Xagoraraki’s laboratory.”

Xagoraraki said all raw and normalized data will be reported to Wayne, Macomb and Oakland County Health Departments, the Great Lakes Water Authority, and the City of Detroit every week. Neighborhood sampling will include three zip codes in Wayne County (48205, 48210, 48235), three zip codes in Oakland County (48076, 48322, 48237) and three zip codes in Macomb County (48021, 48044, 48043). The zip codes are selected in consultation with the health departments based on demographics and cumulative COVID- 19 cases.

Health departments will use the data to plan interventions such as public education, targeted clinical testing, and targeted vaccination campaigns, she continued.

“We will conduct weekly sampling at the wastewater treatment plant to cover the majority of the City of Detroit, and Wayne Macomb and Oakland Counties, and in addition, we will focus on selected neighborhoods for additional monitoring. The samples will be analyzed in triplicate for N1 and N2 genes of SARS-CoV-2 and for multiple mutations and variants. We’ll continue our weekly meetings with the local health departments to discuss the results.”

Xagoraraki and her research team began the wastewater-based-epidemiology project in 2017, in collaboration with the City of Detroit. The team’s efforts were funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. In 2020, she received more than $1 million in additional support from the Great Lakes Water Authority and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Their investigation of community composite samples is explained in this video.

Acclaim of her work continues to grow. She was recently awarded the American Society of Civil Engineering (ASCE) Society State-of-the-Art of Civil Engineering Award for her virus-related work. The Society Award is presented each year to recognize the expert efforts of civil engineers who are advancing their profession either through achievement or published papers. ASCE is the nation’s oldest engineering society that represents 150,000 members of the civil engineering profession in 177 countries.

Research publications have shared the ongoing findings:

Science Direct:
Journal of Applied Microbiology:
October 2020: and February 2021:

Other publications have also described the research:
ASCE Library: and

Her break-through research on viruses in environmental systems has led to other recognitions, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Scientific and Technological Achievement Award.

“Working with talented and enthusiastic graduate students to create a productive and visionary environmental virology laboratory that focuses on public health issues is among my most important accomplishments,” she added.