Covid-19 response

Testing system to trace virus via wastewater

A UK-wide system for detecting coronavirus in wastewater is being developed to provide early warning of outbreaks.

The approach may help curb the need for testing of large populations in regions with outbreaks.

Experts say sewage surveillance may be useful in identifying future Covid-19 hotspots because many people infected with the virus that causes the disease - known as SARS coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) - shed it in their faeces even if they have no symptoms.

Warning system

Several studies have shown that genetic material from SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in wastewater first before there is a surge in local hospital admissions, which means wastewater could become an effective warning system for Covid-19 and other infectious diseases.

The £1 million research programme will develop sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods for use by government agencies and scientists across the UK.

Researchers from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute will sample wastewater for genetic material, known as RNA, which represents the fingerprint of the coronavirus.

Amassing evidence

Scientists will also seek to determine whether the virus in wastewater can be infectious, and how environmental factors such as sunlight and temperature affect its ability to infect and cause disease.

Currently, the World Health Organization has said there is no evidence that Covid-19 has been transmitted via sewerage systems.

Working in partnership

The research programme is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. As wells as the team from the Roslin Institute, the programme involves researchers the Universities of Bangor, Bath, Cranfield, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, plus the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The team will also work with the UK Department for Food & Rural Affairs, environment agencies, public health bodies and water companies across the UK. They will undertake sampling of wastewater at several major cities as part of their study.

The research programme, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, will inform surveillance programmes recently announced by Defra and the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

Roslin researchers are taking part in the Scottish surveillance programme, working alongside the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, the Scottish Government’s Centre of Expertise for Waters, and Health Protection Scotland.

Sampling wastewater in various regions, and targeting areas where spikes appear, could be an effective method of helping to control the spread of Covid-19, and potentially other infectious diseases. It could offer a cost-effective, simple, swift way to highlight populations at risk and take necessary action to limit the spread of disease.

Dr Alex CorbishleyRoslin Institute

Related links

Roslin Institute

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