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 re-opening and additional insights on transmission of coronavirus from children to children and children to adults. 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 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.”

Dr Mariachiara Di Cesare, Middlesex University and the Principal 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. 

Commenting on the study, John Hatwell, Director of NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing (Pillar 4), said: “The TERM project is another step forward in our commitment to defeating this invisible killer. We are excited to have Middlesex University lead this study and the potential it offers to identify COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and inform response measures. Not only will the results help us better understand transmission amongst children, but they will enable us to support the safe re-opening of schools.”

Notes for editors

* The school wastewater-based epidemiological surveillance system for the rapid identification of COVID-19 outbreaks is referred to as TERM.