Sewage samples can detect whether a community is experiencing a spike in coronavirus cases, according to a new programme which has been successfully tested in the South West.
An Environment Agency laboratory at Starcross near Exeter led the testing of the project which the Government say could become an early warning system for local outbreaks, and a ‘vital step’ in the national Test and Trace programme.
Samples from five areas across the region, including sewage treatment works in Plymouth and Cornwall, are now being used to detect a potential spike in coronavirus cases.
Organisers say the results of the programme, which began in July, have revealed that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be detected in wastewater.
This can provide health professionals with a clearer idea of infection rates within a community as it will show results from asymptomatic carriers or even those who have yet to experience symptoms.
Those behind the project say it has already worked successfully in the South West and will now be rolled out across 80 wastewater treatment sites across the UK.
Among five sites in the region now being sampled are St Ives and Penzance sewage treatment works and Plymouth Central STW as well as sites in Bristol, Trowbridge and Weymouth.
Data from sampling will be shared with the NHS Test and Trace programme and prompt health professionals and councils to issue warnings in areas of infection.
The £1m scheme involves a host of organisations including Defra, the Environment Agency, the Joint-Biosecurity Centre as well as university departments in Cardiff, Bangor, Edinburgh, London and Middlesex as well as water companies and the Office for National Statistics.
The Government say testing sewage for diseases has been done for many years, but this is the first time that molecular science has been used in the fight against coronavirus.
Emma Howard Boyd, Chair of the Environment Agency, said: “Sewage is a rich source of information about community health. I recently visited Starcross laboratory and saw the testing, monitoring and analysis carried out by the Environment Agency’s wastewater experts.
“I was inspired by their collaborative approach with academics, industry, government to help provide an early warning system for local coronavirus outbreaks.”
Dr Davey Jones, Professor of Soil & Environmental Science at Bangor University, said: “We have been monitoring viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis in human sewage for the last decade, as part of a programme to evaluate levels of these viruses in the community. We added Covid-19 to the surveillance list in March this year.
“We showed that viral levels in wastewater mapped really well onto the success of lockdown measures in the first Covid-19 wave and to the emergence of the second wave. We are now using it to track the emergence and control of Covid-19 cases and working on new pilots to map the virus at both the local and the regional scale.”
Environment Secretary George Eustice, who is also MP for Camborne and Redruth, said: “This is a significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates both nationally and locally, particularly in areas where there may be large numbers of people who aren’t showing any symptoms and therefore aren’t seeking tests.
“NHS Test and Trace is able to use the science to ensure local health leads are alerted and can take action.
“We are continuing to look at how this programme can be refined as one of the many measures we’re using to slow the spread of the virus and protect local communities.”
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock said: “This initiative is just one example of how we are working across government and with local partners to find innovative, new ways to track the outbreak, slow the spread of the virus and save lives.
“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.”