Cranfield University part of project to investigate coronavirus prevalence in schools wastewater Photo by Ivan Bandura on Unsplash

Research to provide new evidence on the safety of schools reopening

A new project looking for traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in the wastewater of schools will establish whether this could provide a useful ‘early warning’ system of infection levels.

Cranfield University joins Middlesex University, who is leading the TERM study, in collaboration with Test and Trace’s Joint Biosecurity Centre, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Bath, Imperial College London and University College London.

The London Assembly Health Committee, Brent Council, and The London Drainage Engineers Group are members of the stakeholder group.

The research will provide new evidence on the safety of schools reopening and additional insights on transmission of coronavirus from children-to-children and children-to-adults.

Dr Francis Hassard Image Cranfield University.jpeg

Dr Francis Hassard, lecturer in Public Health Microbiology, Cranfield University and Co-Principal Investigator of TERM, said:

“We know the key to tackling COVID-19, in advance of effective pharmaceutical intervention, is effective test, trace and isolation of infective individuals.

“The tracking of school wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 allows us to pinpoint potential outbreaks in advance and put in place effective public health interventions to prevent spread.

“We are delighted to be taking part in this vital national effort to minimise COVID’s impact to children’s education and the UK economy.”

The £2.4 million project is funded by the NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing Team.

The objectives of the TERM research will include:

  • Collate new evidence on the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 in schools and how this associates with local cases
  • Determine whether a wastewater surveillance system can work at school level, i.e. establish the effectiveness of extracting non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments (the virus that results in COVID-19) from in-school wastewater systems
  • Evaluate the costs of undertaking a wastewater surveillance system at a large scale
  • Explore the feasibility of implementing an early-warning system based on wastewater surveillance data at a community level

Dr Mariachiara Di Cesare, Middlesex University and The Principle Investigator, said:

“Most of our knowledge on children comes from a period of general schools’ closure. The recent reopening of schools is a big unknown in terms of its impact on the second wave. We are very aware of how uncertain this period is for schools, parents, and the whole of society.

“We hope to help schools remain open under safe conditions and to prompt a rapid community level response when at risk. Routine wastewater surveillance has the potential to inform the targeted use of community level testing. The potential long term sustainability of this approach is what makes it unique.”

Researchers are currently working with schools and setting up laboratories with the aim of monitoring 70 schools throughout England.

In July, Cranfield University announced that it is collaborating in similar research to develop a standardised UK system for detecting COVID-19 in wastewater.

Dr Francis Hassard said:

“The project is similar, but different in that it is trying to understand COVID spread in schools. This project is therefore tracking COVID near-source, as opposed to at wastewater treatment works, and is hoping to provide a rapid tool for decision makers.

“The tools developed as part of this project could be used on any large building such as student halls of residence, prisons, hospitals or factories.”