Monitoring of over-the-counter (OTC) and COVID-19 treatment drugs complement wastewater surveillance of SARS-CoV-2

Cheng Shiuan Lee, Mian Wang, Deepak Nanjappa, Yi Ta Lu, Jaymie Meliker, Sean Clouston, Christopher J. Gobler, Arjun K. Venkatesan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

3 Scopus citations


Background: The application of wastewater-based epidemiology to track the outbreak and prevalence of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in communities has been tested and validated by several researchers across the globe. However, the RNA-based surveillance has its inherent limitations and uncertainties. Objective: This study aims to complement the ongoing wastewater surveillance efforts by analyzing other chemical biomarkers in wastewater to help assess community response (hospitalization and treatment) during the pandemic (2020–2021). Methods: Wastewater samples (n = 183) were collected from the largest wastewater treatment facility in Suffolk County, NY, USA and analyzed for COVID-19 treatment drugs (remdesivir, chloroquine, and hydroxychloroquine (HCQ)) and their human metabolites. We additionally monitored 26 pharmaceuticals including common over-the-counter (OTC) drugs. Lastly, we developed a Bayesian model that uses viral RNA, COVID-19 treatment drugs, and pharmaceuticals data to predict the confirmed COVID-19 cases within the catchment area. Results: The viral RNA levels in wastewater tracked the actual COVID-19 case numbers well as expected. COVID-19 treatment drugs were detected with varying frequency (9–100%) partly due to their instability in wastewater. We observed a significant correlation (R = 0.30, p < 0.01) between the SARS-CoV-2 genes and desethylhydroxychloroquine (DHCQ, metabolite of HCQ). Remdesivir levels peaked immediately after the Emergency Use Authorization approved by the FDA. Although, 13 out of 26 pharmaceuticals assessed were consistently detected (DF = 100%, n = 111), only acetaminophen was significantly correlated with viral loads, especially when the Omicron variant was dominant. The Bayesian models were capable of reproducing the temporal trend of the confirmed cases. Impact: In this study, for the first time, we measured COVID-19 treatment and pharmaceutical drugs and their metabolites in wastewater to complement ongoing COVID-19 viral RNA surveillance efforts. Our results highlighted that, although the COVID-19 treatment drugs were not very stable in wastewater, their detection matched with usage trends in the community. Acetaminophen, an OTC drug, was significantly correlated with viral loads and confirmed cases, especially when the Omicron variant was dominant. A Bayesian model was developed which could predict COVID-19 cases more accurately when incorporating other drugs data along with viral RNA levels in wastewater.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalJournal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology
StateAccepted/In press - 2023

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Epidemiology
  • Toxicology
  • Pollution
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


  • Acetaminophen
  • Bayesian models
  • COVID-19 pandemic
  • Remdesivir
  • Wastewater-based epidemiology


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