Scientists across the UK have begun a project to test sewage in wastewater for fragments of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. If successful, the project could help spot rises in infections and act as an ‘early warning’ system to help control outbreaks.

The research involves scientists from the universities of Bangor, Bath, Edinburgh, Cranfield, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, plus the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

The aim is to take regular samples from wastewater sites in big cities around the UK. If raised levels of the virus are detected in one area, testing different points in the wastewater system might allow scientists to narrow it down to a specific area. This could happen up to 2 weeks before doctors start to detect an increase of people with symptoms or positive test results, and so hopefully allow for early mitigation measures.

 

Where did the story come from?

BBC News reported that laboratories had started testing samples from 44 treatment plants in England. The programme is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, based in Bangor, Wales. The work is being carried out in partnership with Defra, environment agencies, public health bodies and water companies.

A press release in the journal Nature Research also covered the issue earlier this year.

 

What is the basis for the claim?

The press release reported that studies have demonstrated that people infected with SARS-CoV-2 shed fragments of the virus’ genetic material (RNA) in their faeces within three days of infection, which is usually before symptoms appear. Fragments of SARS-CoV-2 RNA were also detected in sewage systems in several countries in the early stages of the pandemic.

However, it has been difficult to create a reliable test to detect fragments of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material, which may be present at very low levels, in wastewater that is contaminated by many other microorganisms and chemicals. There were also concerns that developing these testing systems may detract resources from the healthcare system.

The UK programme is intending to sample and test wastewater from different parts of the sewage network to identify the geographic area of potential outbreaks. This could act as an ‘early warning’ system, and give public health officials an estimated 7-10 day head start in knowing whether there is a need to reintroduce local lockdown measures.

There is currently no evidence that fragments of RNA in faeces can cause COVID-19 infection, although this is not certain. Part of the research will aim to answer that question.

 

What do trusted sources say?

The UK Department for Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘Sampling from sewage treatment works around the country will begin shortly. Data gathered will be used to refine the approach and feed into the Covid-19 Alert System created by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC).

‘Techniques are still in their infancy, so the government and Devolved Administration partners are working closely with academics, UK Research and Innovation and the Natural Environment Research Council and water companies in developing and testing this cutting-edge approach.’

The WHO says: ‘There is no evidence to date on the survival of the COVID-19 virus in water or sewage.’

 

Analysis by EIU Healthcare, supported by Reckitt Benckiser

 

Citation

  1. Work begins on UK system for estimating COVID-19 cases from wastewater. UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology. https://www.ceh.ac.uk/press/work-begins-uk-system-estimating-covid-19-cases-wastewater (Accessed 13 August 2020)

 

Reading list

  1. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Group to measure coronavirus prevalence in wastewater. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/group-to-measure-for-coronavirus-prevalence-in-waste-water (Accessed 13 August 2020)