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Testing system to trace Covid-19 via wastewater

Scientists join UK project developing methods to track local outbreaks of coronavirus via sewage.

Aerial photograph of Sewage Works
Samples from wastewater could warn of Covid-19 spikes in local populations.

Roslin scientists are helping develop a UK-wide system for detecting coronavirus in wastewater, to provide early warning of Covid-19 outbreaks.

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

Sewage surveillance may be useful in identifying future Covid-19 hotspots because most people infected with the virus, known as SARS-CoV-2, are believed to shed it in their faeces even if they have no symptoms.

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

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

Researchers will sample wastewater for genetic material, known as RNA, which represents the fingerprint of the coronavirus.

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

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

Informing surveillance programmes

The research programme is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH). It involves researchers from the Roslin Institute, 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 (Defra), 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

** The Roslin Institute receives strategic investment funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and it is part of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies. **

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