Cranfield scientists are collaborating in research to develop a standardised UK-wide system for detecting COVID-19 in wastewater, in order to 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. It will also inform the national wastewater surveillance programmes announced by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Scottish and Welsh Governments.

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: “We are very pleased to be involved in this national effort. The shedding of SARS-CoV-2 is usually at a very early stage of infection when people may have zero or mild symptoms. 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.

“We have been developing simple, low-cost paper-based devices for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage which will contribute to pilot testing in the project. These devices could enable workers at wastewater treatment plants to perform tests on-site, avoiding the need for cold storage and shipment of samples, as well as the inherent delays in such a process. The approach is able to yield results within an hour, without any power or advanced facilities.”

Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH and principal investigator of the new National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP), said: “Several studies have shown that the RNA of SARS-CoV-2 – the genetic material of the virus – can be detected in wastewater ahead of local hospital admissions, which means wastewater could effectively become the ‘canary in the coal mine’ for COVID-19 and other emerging infectious diseases.

“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.”

Professor Gideon Henderson, Defra Chief Scientific Advisor, said: “It is heartening to see the scientific community continuing to combat coronavirus through this project, alongside the government. We are already working with researchers, water companies and devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and NI to monitor for fragments of coronavirus genetic material in wastewater in the hope that it will help us detect new outbreaks. Though the science is still in its infancy, this new project will help us to develop the methods that we are applying.”

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.

N-WESP is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19 and will run until October 2021. Researchers from the universities of Bangor, Bath, Edinburgh, Lancaster, Newcastle, Oxford and Sheffield, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine are also involved in the study.

Further details of the WBE approach for detecting SARS-CoV-2 have been published in the Environmental Science & Technology and ACS Nano journals.

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