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What human waste can tell us about COVID-19

BBSRC scientists: Dr Ngozi Elumogo and Professor Arjan Narbad (Credit: Quadrum Institute)

BBSRC scientists: Dr Ngozi Elumogo and Professor Arjan Narbad (Credit: Quadrum Institute)

Human waste could have much to tell us about how COVID-19 works and help the UK and other countries develop their response strategy.

Three UKRI-funded projects are examining human waste to increase our understanding of COVID-19 on an individual and city-wide level.

New study at the Quadrum Institute

Researchers at the Quadrum Institute, working with the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, have launched a new study to find out how often and for how long COVID-19 is present in the stool of people who have tested positive for COVID-19. It has been funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Initial studies showed that over 60% of COVID-19 positive patients had gastrointestinal symptoms like diarrhoea, nausea and vomiting, and the disease was found in their faecal samples.

The team now wants to collect stool and saliva samples from people who have tested positive for COVID-19. They want to find out if and how the virus changes in saliva, the respiratory tract and the gut during infection.

Professor Arjan Narbad said:

This study will allow us to understand the ability of this virus to persist in the gastrointestinal tract both during and after the patient has recovered from symptoms of COVID 19.

Dr Ngozi Elumogo said:

We are discovering new information about this virus all the time and it is important to find out if the virus persists in stool.

[This means] that we can investigate further the possibility of faecal-oral transmission, and better design methods for minimising transmission.

Welsh wastewater study tracks the virus

A study funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – led by scientists at Bangor University – is sampling wastewater from households across Wales in the hope of creating an early warning system for communities.

Professor David Jones has been working with Welsh Water and United Utilities on the project, which tracks the inactive virus through wastewater.

Professor Jones says that whenever a person with COVID-19 goes to the toilet they pass the virus, at that point inactive and non-infectious, into the sewer network.

The team has already detected different levels of the virus across Wales by rapidly sampling wastewater from treatment works. In around 48 hours, the team can get an idea of whether the number of infections is increasing.

They hopes to extend the project and work with other water companies to expand the surveillance network to other regions of the UK.

A UK system to estimate COVID-19 cases from wastewater

Another NERC-funded project aims to develop a standardised, UK-wide system for detecting coronavirus in wastewater. This project is led by scientists from the UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology.

The system could provide an early warning of future outbreaks and reduce reliance on costly testing of large populations.

Sampling, testing and scientific modelling methods will be developed during the project, which will run until October 2021. The methods will be adopted by government agencies and scientists across the UK and inform the UK national surveillance programmes recently announced by Defra and the Scottish and Welsh governments.

Wastewater could be the “canary in the coal mine”

Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH 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.

Last updated: 28 October 2020

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