Cranfield University scientists are collaborating to develop a system for detecting COVID-19 in wastewater Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Sewage surveillance is seen as promising way to identifying future disease hotspots

Cranfield University scientists are collaborating in research to develop a standardised UK system for detecting COVID-19 in wastewater. This could provide an early warning of future outbreaks and reduce reliance on costly testing of large populations.

The £1 million programme, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), will use wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) to develop sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods that will be adopted by government agencies and scientists across the UK.

Most 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.

Sewage surveillance is therefore seen as a promising way of identifying future disease hotspots. Dr Zhugen Yang, lecturer in Sensor Technology and head of the sensors laboratory at Cranfield Water Science Institute, said:

“Community sewage detection could provide an initial warning of COVID-19 carriers in an area which can then be followed up with more targeted testing.”

Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH and principal investigator of the new National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP), said:

“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.”

Researchers will work with Defra, environment agencies, public health bodies and water companies across the UK and undertake sampling of wastewater at several major cities as part of the study.

The research will also determine whether SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and sludge could be infectious, and how environmental factors such as sunlight and temperature reduce infectivity.

This will inform protection guidance for workers at sewage plants and enable the assessment of risk to people and animals as a result of treated and untreated sewage discharge in rivers and seas.