Congresswoman Grace Meng on Monday, Oct. 3, toured Queens College’s Wastewater Epidemiology Training Laboratory (WETLAB), a project that she made possible with $1,850,000 in federal funding to develop strategies to detect dangerous pathogens — such as COVID-19, influenza, polio and monkeypox — in wastewater.
The money is part of nearly $10 million in federal allocations for Community Project Funding that was secured by Meng for 10 projects throughout Queens.
“Thanks to her vision, we are on the forefront of virus detection in New York City,” Queens College President Frank Wu said. “She supported funding that made it possible to replace obsolete and old laboratory equipment, allowing Professor Dennehy and his researchers to increase the sensitivity and throughput of their analyses. The funds will also make it possible to get new items that expand the kind of data they collect, further increasing their ability to conduct research.”
According to Meng, the work of the WETLAB will be critical to the health and safety of New Yorkers, helping to ensure that they’re prepared and equipped to tackle public health challenges when they occur.
“I am eager to see the work that the lab produces and look forward to it benefiting Queens and New York for many years to come. As New York’s senior member of the House Appropriations Committee, I am proud to have secured this crucial funding,” Meng said.
The Wastewater Epidemiology Training Laboratory at Queens College aims to develop simple, cost-effective, and robust strategies for detecting the presence of dangerous pathogens—including coronaviruses, polio, and influenza—in sewer shed wastewater, while training students of diverse backgrounds to participate in high-level research activities.
Failure to control virus outbreaks led to the emergence of novel variants of concern that threaten to erase gains from vaccination and recovery-based natural immunity. For these reasons, new approaches to community-wide pathogen surveillance are crucial for addressing the current and future pandemics.
The WETLAB project was conceived and is directed by Queens College Biology Professor John Dennehy, who has made national headlines for his wastewater analysis efforts.
Dennehy and his students were also in attendance to thank Meng and discuss their work.
“Wastewater-based epidemiology is a rapidly developing technology that will provide high paying jobs to our community in addition to helping keep Americans safe from future pandemics,” Dennehy said. “We are grateful that Congresswoman Grace Meng has the vision and foresight to support this work, which is a tremendous boon to CUNY students and the citizens of Queens.”
Daniel Weinstein, dean of the Queens College School of Mathematics and Natural Sciences, acknowledged Meng’s support in remarks.
Mumbai native Sherin Kannoly, a National Institutes of Health-funded postdoctoral researcher in Dennehy’s lab, has developed a patent-pending device for the project that traps pathogens as sewer system water flows through it so that they can be extracted for testing.
Reflecting the extraordinary diversity of the university and college communities, Dennehy is one of the only U.S.-born members of his research team. Colleague Monica Trujillo, a Queensborough Community College microbiologist, is a native of Uruguay, and technicians who have worked on the project over the last two years—several of whom have pursued postgraduate studies or medical school—have come from Bangladesh, Burma, China, India, Japan, Nepal, and Taiwan. One technician is the child of Iranian parents.
After monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater at all 14 NYC wastewater treatment plants for the past two years, the Queens College team has expanded monitoring efforts to NYC Health + Hospitals facilities, where asymptomatic patients carrying serious infections may be shedding them in wastewater. The researchers are working to extend sampling to local airports to detect new pathogens being carried into the country at the earliest possible opportunity.