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Covid early warning system could avert lockdowns

Coronavirus tracking simulations will combine data on vaccination, wastewater samples and surveys.

Professor Rowland Kao in his office
Experts will devise a system to identify Covid-19 outbreaks early.

Scientists are developing a Covid-19 early warning system that could prevent future lockdowns in Scotland by combining data on vaccine uptake with wastewater testing.

The project will forecast the pandemic’s trajectory, allowing experts to identify potential hotspots early, predict stresses on hospitals and intensive care units, and create more focused access to vaccines.

Experts say such systems are still needed despite the success of the vaccine rollout because new variants are a risk and a spike in flu cases, combined with Covid-19, could place the National Health Service under pressure next winter.

The new project, led by the Roslin Institute, is a partnership between the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish Water. It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

Four-pronged approach

The system will include near instantaneous information on vaccine uptake and Covid-19 testing, broken down by individual parts of Scotland. 

It will link results of when genetic material from the virus is identified in wastewater to specific areas and highlight where infections are increasing or decreasing. This will help to pinpoint the prevalence and distribution of the virus throughout Scotland.

Scientists will use real-time data to adapt their existing models of Covid-19 spread and improve short- and medium-term forecasts. The updated models could then be used to evaluate different strategies to control Covid-19 outbreaks without the need for further lockdowns.

Experts say long-term forecasts will be possible as more data becomes available on vaccine-induced and natural immunity, loss of immunity and areas where vaccine uptake has been low.

A survey will gauge attitudes towards and ease of access to vaccines and examine how the results relate to the Scottish Index of Multiple Deprivation, as areas of high deprivation have been disproportionately affected by Covid-19 and are more likely to experience low vaccine uptake.

Simulations of various scenarios involving differing rates of vaccine uptake will be built by combining the data.

While we can all hope for eradication of Covid-19 this summer, a more realistic possibility is that we find ways of dealing with regular localised outbreaks. This partnership aims to identify strategies to show where these are, by rapidly picking up outbreaks and introducing local control measures such as surge testing and intensive contact tracing. A key to this is to understand how the numbers of people being vaccinated may vary geographically, as any local clusters with larger numbers of unprotected individuals could drive local outbreaks. In a winter where resources will also be strained by flu and other seasonal infections, controlling those outbreaks, if they occur, could be crucial to avoiding further lockdowns.

Professor Rowland KaoChair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science, Roslin Institute

SEPA was among the first European agencies to begin work, with the help of key partners, to pinpoint Covid-19 RNA in local waste water samples in May 2020. The recent announcement from Scottish Government of additional funding means this work has an extension until March 2022. Our laboratory will continue analysing around 200 samples a week, collected by Scottish Water from wastewater treatment works across the country, playing a significant role in Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19. We’re proud that our science expertise is helping public health partners make key decisions to support community testing and we’ll continue to work closely with health specialists and academic partners.

David PirieExecutive Director, SEPA

** 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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Related links

Roslin Covid-19 research

Sewage signals early warning of Covid-19 outbreaks