Scientists start research to develop Covid 19 test in wastewater

UK scientists have embarked on a £1m programme to develop an early warning of future outbreaks of Covid 19 drawn from measuring genetic material from the coronavirus in wastewater.

Researchers at universities nationwide are seeking to create a standardised, UK-wide system for detecting the virus in wastewater based on the observation that most people infected with SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid 19 – shed the virus in their faeces, even if they are asymptomatic. The study – the National Covid-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme – will last until October 2021.

The researchers see sewage surveillance as a promising way of identifying future disease hotspots and to reduce reliance on costly testing of large populations. Their work will inform the UK national surveillance programmes recently announced by Defra, Scottish and Welsh governments.

The researchers will also examine whether SARS-CoV 2 in wastewater and sludge can be infectious. Findings from this work should confirm whether current guidance is effective in protecting workers at sewage plants. And it could provide a measure of the risk of infecting people and animals when treated and untreated sewage is discharged in rivers and seas.

The research is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology UKCEH. The work will be undertaken its centres in Bangor, Edinburgh, Lancaster and Wallingford and at the universities of Bath, Cranfield, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, as well as the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The team will work with scientists in other countries, including Spain and the Netherlands, where there is an established surveillance system to track SARS-CoV-2 virus in sewage.

Principal investigator of the programme, Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH,

Said: “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.

“By sampling wastewater at different parts of the sewerage network, we can gradually narrow an outbreak down to smaller geographical areas, enabling public health officials to quickly target interventions in those areas at greatest risk of spreading the infection.”

Co-investigator, the University of Bath’s Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, said “Wastewater-based epidemiology offers a promising method for monitoring a pandemic, particularly for infectious diseases such as Covid-19 where asymptomatic cases play a significant role in transmitting the virus. Given the financial and logistical challenges of testing large numbers of people, and then trying to isolate those infected, this represents a potentially low-cost, anonymous and immediate mechanism for predicting local outbreaks and helping to contain the spread of infection.”