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A senior researcher from the Nuffield Department of Population Health will determine the accuracy of estimates of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease - in wastewater, as part of a project to develop a standardised UK-wide system for detecting SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. The system will provide an early warning of future outbreaks and reduce reliance on costly testing of large populations.

The majority of people infected with SARS-CoV-2 are believed to shed coronavirus particles in their faeces, even if they are asymptomatic, so sewage surveillance is widely seen as a promising way of identifying future disease hotspots. The new £1m research programme will see experts develop sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods that will be adopted by government agencies and scientists across the UK. The work will inform the national surveillance programme recently announced by Defra, and the Scottish and Welsh Governments.

The researchers will also determine whether there is a possibility for SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and sludge to be infectious, and how environmental factors such as sunlight and temperature reduce infectivity. This will enable them to confirm whether current guidance is protective of workers at sewage plants, and also assess the risk to people and animals as a result of treated and untreated sewage discharge in rivers and seas.

The research programme is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH). It also involves researchers from the universities of Bangor, Bath, Edinburgh, Cranfield, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.

Koen Pouwels, Senior Researcher in the Health Economics Research Centre, Nuffield Department of Population Health, and co-investigator for the project said: ‘This novel approach to monitoring infection may enable us to monitor future epidemics more effectively. I will be assessing to what extent the amount of SARS-CoV-2 correlates with the estimated number of people infected in different areas across the country over time. By doing so we can determine the accuracy of a surveillance system based on detecting of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater.’   

Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH, principal investigator of the new National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP), 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, which means wastewater could effectively become the ‘canary in the coalmine’ for COVID-19 and other emerging infectious diseases.  

‘The research will be centred on wastewater-based epidemiology – the concept is based on analysis of wastewater for markers of infectious disease, illicit drugs or pharmaceuticals in order to better inform public health decisions. 

‘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.’ 

The researchers will also work with 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 is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.