The UK is expanding a surveillance system that detects COVID-19 in sewage after trials helped alert local authorities to increasing levels of the virus in municipal wastewater.
The UK Department of Health and Social Care has announced that researchers last month used a technique, known as wastewater epidemiology, to successfully identify a new cluster of infections in the city of Plymouth in Southwest England.
The local outbreak was caught before symptoms appeared and had not yet been detected by the UK’s testing and tracking system. The alert was forwarded to the local council and the National Health Service, which contacted people in the area to warn of an increase in cases.
The UK government-led program, which started in July, will now expand to 90 sewage treatment sites that collectively serve more than a fifth of the UK’s population.
The government hopes that this will become an early warning system for the regional spike in COVID-19 cases.
“Wastewater monitoring and sampling offers another tool to help us identify outbreaks early on, helping NHS Test and Traceability and local authorities target hotspots quickly and effectively,” said Health Minister Matt Hancock.
Yang Zhugen, a lecturer in sensor technology at the Cranfield Water Science Institute which is part of the UK program, said the genetic material from the virus could be detected in sewage long before victims of the new plague fell ill.
“Even if people are in the early stages of infection, without symptoms, their stool can still contain viral particles,” Yang told China Daily in a previous interview.
Epidemiologists are increasingly using wastewater testing to track levels of use of illegal drugs, pharmaceuticals and other chemical compounds over the past few decades. Recently, scientists have begun exploring similar techniques for monitoring pathogens, including influenza, polio, and sexually transmitted diseases.
Researchers in the Netherlands managed to detect the new coronavirus in Utrecht in early March, weeks before the city’s first confirmed cases of COVID-19. Separate testing confirmed the presence of the virus at waste disposal sites elsewhere in Europe, as well as in the United States, South America, Asia and Australia, prompting several governments to initiate wastewater surveillance programs.
This method is also used with frozen waste samples, helping scientists determine a timeline for the spread of the virus. Ancient waste samples from Spain, Italy and Brazil show that the novel coronavirus was circulating globally well before the first documented cases of COVID-19 in China, in late December 2019.
David Graham, a professor of ecosystem engineering at Newcastle University and project leader on the UK program, said that while more investment is needed to improve methods for calculating COVID-19 in wastewater, initial results are “very promising”.
“Wastewater virus levels are clearly higher in places with higher cases of COVID-19, and we are now working with colleagues across the UK to support predictive tools for public health protection,” Graham said.
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