How Can Sewage Testing Help with COVID-19?
The COVID-19 pandemic has forced countries to get creative with disease management strategies, with sewage the latest wildcard to attract the attention of British health experts. Currently being rolled out across England, the goal is to utilise wastewater as a tool for Covid-19 surveillance.
Early in the pandemic scientists confirmed the virus was traceable in the faeces of hosts. Now, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leveraging this viral signature and using wastewater samples to pinpoint outbreaks up to seven days before symptoms appear and medical testing begins.
Health department hopes for a “head start”
The department has confirmed sewage surveillance is currently taking place at 44 wastewater treatment sites across the UK, with a spokesperson saying it’s a joint effort from scientists, local governments and water companies. Samples will be extracted and monitored for traces of coronavirus genetic material, with any abnormalities immediately referred to health experts.
“Sampling is being carried out to further test the effectiveness of this new science. Research remains at an early stage and we are still refining our methods,” says Environment Secretary George Eustice. “The aim of this new research is to give us a head start on where new outbreaks are likely to occur.”
Leveraging wastewater epidemiology
Dr Andrew Singer, a Senior Scientist at the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology is currently developing a test designed to track COVID-19 in sewage samples. "We would like to have confidence in saying that when we have an increase in virus numbers in the sewage from week to week, there are higher number of coronavirus cases,” he said in an interview with BBC News. “That means we will be able to look for trends.... to see if the release from lockdown maintains infection levels or are things moving in the wrong direction.”
Professor Davey Jones, a Professor of Soil & Environmental Science at Bangor University, agrees and says wastewater definitely has the potential to reveal an infection spike before community transmission becomes apparent.
Pioneering a sewage-based surveillance system
While Singer admits wastewater epidemiology is a “messy science” by definition, he is confident the development of an accurate and reliable test could play an important role in helping the UK manage the COVID-19 pandemic and ultimately, save lives. “It seems obvious that we should be doing this," asserts Singer. “But it's an approach that's never been considered for an active outbreak.”
Science plays a pivotal role in advancing technologies such as the new sewage-based surveillance system being trialled in the UK.