UKRI-funded research supports COVID-19 sewage tracking system

Colour fluids, waste water

A government-led project, supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and funded by UKRI, is providing an early warning of coronavirus outbreaks by monitoring sewage across the country.

The project, which was first announced in June 2020, has now proven that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be detected in wastewater.

This can then indicate where a local community or an institution is experiencing a spike in cases.

Results can provide local health professionals with a clearer picture of infection rates by identifying where there are high numbers, particularly for asymptomatic carriers and before people start showing symptoms.

The data will be shared with NHS Test and Trace and inform where new outbreaks may be happening.

Tracing virus hotspots

A research programme – with funding from NERC – to look at the sewage early warning system is being led by the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP) is developing sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods.

It is also investigating whether analysis of wastewater can be used to estimate the number of COVID-19 cases in a population, as well as assessing the infection risk of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage.

Other research supported by NERC

In addition, research funded by NERC’s COVID-19 urgency grant by Professor Davey L Jones of Bangor University, is looking at the shedding of COVID-19 in faeces and urine and its potential role in person-to-person transmission.

This suggests the likelihood of infection due to contact with sewage-contaminated water is extremely low or negligible.

Chief Executive of UKRI Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said:

This research shows that our wastewater system can be used to identify coronavirus hotspots early, which could significantly help our ability to contain local outbreaks.

The project is an excellent example of how UKRI can work collaboratively to harness the strength of the UK research and innovation system to address rapidly emerging challenges.

Dr Andrew Singer of UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, who is principal investigator of N-WESP, says:

Wastewater-based epidemiology is an emerging field that can potentially offer rapid insights into the health of a particular population. The research is cost-effective, as well as anonymous and non-invasive for the population surveyed.

Further information

Read Professor Davey L Jones’ published paper in the journal Science of The Total Environment. The research project worked with Welsh Water and United Utilities.

About N-WESP

N-WESP, which received £1 million funding from NERC, began in July 2020 and will continue until October 2021. The project includes scientists from the universities of:

  • Bangor
  • Bath
  • Edinburgh
  • Cranfield
  • Lancaster
  • Newcastle
  • Oxford
  • Sheffield
  • the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Additional UKRI-funded COVID-19 research

Researchers at the Quadrum Institute are working on how often and for how long COVID-19 is present in the stool of people who have tested positive for COVID-19.

As part of research into COVID-19 and its impact on some of the world’s most disadvantaged people through the Global Challenges Research Fund and the Newton Fund, a team from the University of Bath, who are also part of the programme, is partnering with universities in Africa to look into monitoring waste water in developing countries with limited COVID-19 testing capacity.

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