Pilot programme suggests Covid-19 spikes can be detected in wastewater

Welsh universities have been monitoring wastewater pipes for spikes in Covid-19 infections
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Local spikes of Covid-19 can be detected by monitoring wastewater systems, according to a pilot study in Wales.

20 test sites across Wales have been analysing sewerage for the presence of coronavirus in human waste. Virus levels detected have mapped the reduction in cases brought about by the first lockdown and then the rising number of infections which have subsequently forced the country into a firebreak lockdown.

Welsh universities have been working on a programme for over a decade which monitors wastewater for the presence of viruses such as norovirus and Hepatitis. When spikes are found, their research can inform public health bodies about levels of the viruses in local communities.

They began tracking Covid-19 in March last year and their efforts were boosted by £500,000 of funding awarded by the Welsh Government. The project has been led by Bangor University with assistance from Cardiff University and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water.

Seven months on and the results suggest that analysing wastewater can help pinpoint localised breakouts and spikes in Covid-19 infections.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has previously cited monitoring wastewater as a potential method of slowing the spread of Covid-19.

Back in July, an article on Defra’s website said: “Sewage monitoring is being established across the UK as part of an advance warning system to detect new outbreaks of coronavirus.”

“The new approach is based on recent research findings that fragments of genetic material – RNA – from the virus can be detected in wastewater.”

“This could be used to detect the presence of the virus in the population, including those who are asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic.”

By analysing wastewater, researchers could spot increased levels of coronavirus in human waste before Covid-19 cases are confirmed or those infected are admitted to hospital.

Speeding up the process of identifying areas with high cases of coronavirus would allow local lockdowns to be imposed quicker, slowing the transmission of the disease.

Whilst the Welsh project monitors sewage once it reaches treatment works, smart pipes which can analyse the contents of wastewater in real time as sewage flows through them could make the process even quicker.

More than 60 percent of those infected with coronavirus suffer from diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting. Equipping pipes with sensors which can detect Covid-19 as soon as this contaminated human waste enters the wastewater network would pinpoint local outbreaks faster than any other method.

Another Welsh project is meanwhile underway at Swansea University, where a sampling and reporting device is being developed which could predict future outbreaks of Covid-19.

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