Macon R-1 graduate featured in The New York Times for wastewater epidemiology during pandemic

by Benjamin Nelson

MACON, MO -- Dr. Marc Johnson, a virologist and 1990 Macon R-1 graduate, was recently featured in the national publication of The New York Times pertaining to his work with wastewater epidemiology during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Dr. Johnson is a Molecular Microbiology and Immunology Professor at the University of Missouri. In a recent article by The Times titled, "From the Wastewater Drain, Solid Pandemic Data", Johnson highlights his work within wastewater epidemiology during the pandemic which has become a new way of studying viral levels within sewer systems across the United States and the globe. Roughly 54 researchers across the world, including Johnson, are tracking coronavirus levels within wastewater according to the report. This new way of studying infectious diseases has become mainstreamed in the scientific community during the pandemic. It allows researchers to collect sewage samples in which render data that can be given to public health institutions to better understand virus levels within a specific community; data that may be hidden within "blind-spots" through traditional COVID-19 tests or asymptomatic individuals that may never show symptoms and get tested. Additionally, this research also will reveal/detect different viral variants, like the Delta Variant, that are being spread throughout the community. COVID-19 is a respiratory virus (attacking the respiratory track of the body), however work through research like Dr. Johnson has conducted, proves that the virus can be shed through stool of infected persons. "Not every population gets tested, not everyone has access to health care...If there's groups of people that are asymptomatic, they probably aren't getting tested either. So you aren't really getting the full big picture. Whereas for our testing, everyone poops," stated Dr. Marc Johnson within The New York Times report.

We reached out to Dr. Johnson for a few follow-up questions to bring in a local perspective not only regarding the virus itself, but the vaccines themselves. According to Johnson, his interest and passion in biology and science was for the most part established by the time he reached high school, but he credited Mr. Webb who taught Math Counts at Macon Middle School and Mr. Bob McCollum who taught Biology at Macon High School for spurring his interest within the subjects of science and math. Furthermore, Johnson elaborated that his research has included waste water from New York City, Boise, Idaho, and all of Missouri. His research has been published with the CDC, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, American Society for Microbiology Journal of Virology, and has been featured in presentations at universities, medical schools, and hospitals across the nation. When asked what the most fascinating conclusion from his studies that he has learned, Johnson stated, "There are lineages (of COVID-19) circulating that have never been seen from patient samples, not even close. We don’t know where they are coming from but we suspect it is infection some other animal. These sequences fascinate me (and scare me a little), but they are driving me mad." Additional to his studies within the wastewater, Johnson and his team have created viral genes within his lab to test their properties, etc. "From the wastewater work we find out what lineages are circulating. Usually these sequences match what is ‘known’, but not always. We frequently recreate the viral genes in the lab to test their properties, such as what animals they can infect, or whether they are likely to cause breakthrough infections," stated Dr. Johnson.

Wrapping up the email interview, discussing more about coronavirus, misinformation, and vaccinations, Dr. Johnson stated: "Misinformation is a problem everywhere. My lab works with COVID ‘pseudoparticles’, but our team has researchers that work with the infectious virus too. I suppose CDC is a good place for fully digested information. The trouble for everyone is that we can only give the best ‘current’ information, and people can’t always handle the fact that our understanding is incomplete so the guidance may change over time. If you want to dig deeper and get into the cutting edge I would recommend the website “”. It will at least link you the real sources of information. The vaccine is incredibly effective at keeping people alive. It is mind boggling to me that they were able to generate vaccines as good as they have in such a short period of time. It has the advantages of being able to simulate an actual infection, yet contains no virus and is incredibly safe. Yes, I got the vaccine the moment I was allowed. It was a no brainer, this virus doesn’t mess around," stated Dr. Marc Johnson.

The Missouri Department of Health launched The Sewershed Surveillance Project which is a collaborative project between the State Department of Health, the University of Missouri, and the State Department of Natural Resources. Macon is one of many sewer systems that are being monitored. Data released by the State of Missouri currently reflect that viral levels (of COVID-19) within the City of Macon have increased more than 25% within the last few weeks.

As a virologist in The Johnson Lab at Mizzou, Marc along with his team "studies the interactions that occur between viruses (particularly HIV) and their hosts. Viruses are obligate intracellular parasites, meaning that they are completely unable to replicate without the help of their host organism. They accomplish this by tricking cellular machinery into producing and assembling all of the pieces needed to make more virus. How this coercion is accomplished is often poorly understood. Often the normal role of host genes is only understood after we uncover how the virus subvert them. The Johnson lab in particular studies how viruses use host machinery to transport all of the viral pieces to correct location in the cell for assembly. A clearer understanding of these interactions will provide new avenues for the development of antiviral drugs."

For more information relating to The Sewershed Surveillance Project, click on the following link:

The New York Times article that has be referenced and cited throughout this article pertaining to the research conducted by Dr. Johnson, click on the following link:

To visit publications featuring Dr. Johnson's research, visit the following link:

Headline picture of Dr. Johnson from The University of Missouri School of Medicine