Work begins on UK system for estimating COVID-19 cases from wastewater
Scientists will develop a standardised UK-wide system for detecting coronavirus in wastewater, in order to provide an early warning of future outbreaks and reduce reliance on costly testing of large populations.
The majority of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease – are believed to shed the virus in their faeces, even if they are asymptomatic, so sewage surveillance is widely seen as a promising way of identifying future disease hotspots.
The new £1m research programme will see experts develop sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods that will be adopted by government agencies and scientists across the UK. The work will inform the UK national surveillance programmes recently announced by Defra, Scottish and Welsh Governments.
The researchers will also determine whether there is a possibility for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and sludge to be infectious, and how environmental factors such as sunlight and temperature reduce infectivity. This will enable them to confirm that current guidance is protective of workers at sewage plants, and also assess the risk to people and animals as a result of treated and untreated sewage discharge in rivers and seas.
The research programme, which is now under way and will last until October 2021, is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH). It also involves researchers from the universities of Bangor, Bath, Edinburgh, Cranfield, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, plus the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH, principal investigator of the new National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP), says: “Several studies have shown that the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 – the genetic material of the virus – can be detected in wastewater ahead of local hospital admissions, which means wastewater could effectively become the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for COVID-19 and other emerging infectious diseases.
“The research will be centred on wastewater-based epidemiology – the concept is based on analysis of wastewater for markers of infectious disease, illicit drugs or pharmaceuticals in order to better inform public health decisions.