Work begins on UK system for estimating COVID-19 cases from wastewater

New lab facilities LSHTM, North Courtyard, Keppel Street

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) is to play a key role in the development of a standardised UK-wide system for detecting coronavirus in wastewater, in order to 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 - the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease - are believed to shed the virus 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 National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP) will be by led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), with partners from LSHTM, the universities of Bangor, Bath, Edinburgh, Cranfield, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield.

This £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 UK national surveillance programmes recently announced by Defra, 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 that 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, which is now underway and will last until October 2021.

At LSHTM, researchers will be developing laboratory tools to find the SARS-CoV-2 virus by detecting the genome of the virus in wastewater.

With partners at the University of Edinburgh, LSHTM will also be trying to uncover what finding the virus genome in wastewater means, whether it is infectious, and what the risks to the population might be.

Dr David Allen, Associate Professor of Virology at LSHTM, said: “As we move forward in understanding how to control COVID-19, wastewater monitoring could help manage future outbreaks, by giving us an early warning sign that there are more cases in the community. The sooner we find these hotspots, the sooner we can act to reduce transmission and stop the outbreak.”

Dr Andrew Singer, Senior Scientist at UKCEH and principal investigator of 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 coal mine’ 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.

Professor Gideon Henderson, Defra Chief Scientific Advisor, said: “It is heartening to see the scientific community continuing to combat coronavirus through this project, alongside the government.

“We are already working with researchers, water companies and devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and NI to monitor for fragments of coronavirus genetic material in waste water in the hope that it will help us detect new outbreaks.

“Though the science is still in its infancy, this new project will help us to develop the methods that we are applying.”

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.

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