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Sewage signals early warning of Covid-19 outbreaks

Monitoring programmes put into operation to quickly identify localised coronavirus outbreaks.

Fragments of coronavirus have been detected in wastewater samples across Scotland and in England and Wales, in projects designed to enable early warning of local outbreaks of Covid-19 infection.

The approach, developed with support from Roslin scientists, tests for genetic material from the coronavirus in wastewater.

Most people infected with the coronavirus are believed to shed it in their faeces even if they have no symptoms, so wastewater analysis can help identify local outbreaks ahead of rising hospital admissions.

Tracking clusters

Sampling and testing in Scotland was developed by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) with backing from the Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland (PHS), alongside Scottish Water and researchers from the Roslin Institute.

Analyses have so far identified coronavirus traces in wastewater from 12 health board areas. The results have been shared with Public Health Scotland (PHS) and are consistent with known clusters of cases.

Sample results across the rest of Scotland continue to be consistent with PHS information on cases in the community.

Since May, SEPA and partners at the Roslin Institute have been refining analysis methods to lower the concentration of RNA – genetic material from the virus – required to be reliably detected.

A similar programme from the UK Government, also developed with support from Roslin scientists, is providing an early warning of coronavirus outbreaks by monitoring sewage across England and Wales.

The project is successfully detecting traces of coronavirus in sewerage and sharing data with NHS Test and Trace.

Testing has been rolled out across more than 90 wastewater treatment sites, covering approximately 22 per cent of the population in England, with plans to expand.

Roslin’s research has been supported by funding from the Centre of Expertise for Waters (CREW).

Central to the delivery of this project has been our partnership working Scottish Water and the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, and we will continue to work closely together to refine our techniques and understanding.

Terry A’HearnSEPA Chief Executive Officer

Monitoring and sampling wastewater offers another tool to help us identify outbreaks early on – helping NHS Test and Trace and local authorities target hotspots quickly and effectively.

Matt HancockHealth and Social Care Secretary

Sampling wastewater is a simple, fast approach that can help identify Covid-19 hotspots. As we move into the winter, it has the potential to help differentiate between flu and Covid-19 clusters, which could help relieve pressure on test and protect and coordinate actions to deal with local outbreaks.

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. **

Related links

Roslin broadens research tackling Covid-19

Genetics of Covid-19 patients is focus of study

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