Coronavirus: Testing sewage gives early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks

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By Alice Tidey
A man wears a face mask as he passes Britain's Parliament in London, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.
A man wears a face mask as he passes Britain's Parliament in London, Friday, Oct. 16, 2020.   -  Copyright  AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

Monitoring sewage provides an early warning for local outbreaks of COVID-19, a British research programme has found.

A pilot scheme conducting by Britain's Environment Agency and Joint Biosecurity Centre, has now proven that fragments of COVID-19 genetic material can be detected in wastewater, the government said in a statement.

It added that this should provide local health professionals with a clearer picture of infection rates by identifying where there are high numbers of infected people, especially asymptomatic ones.

"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," Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, said.

Tests also carried out by the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control had identified traces of COVID-19 material in London sewage water in February, before any cases were officially recorded. High levels of the virus were then recorded in the capital's wastewater in March and April before decreasing considerably in May and June as lockdown measures curbed infections.

Environment Secretary George Eustice described the findings as "a significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates both nationally and locally."

"We are continuing to look at how this programme can be refined as one of the many measures we're using to slow the spread of the virus and protect local communities," he added.

Testing has for now been rolled out to 90 wastewater treatment sites in the UK, covering just under a quarter of the population in England. It is now expected to be expanded.

More than 21,200 new cases were recorded on Thursday in the UK with COVID-19 also claiming the lives of a further 189 people. The country's death toll from the pandemic now stands a 44,347 — the highest in Europe.

Earlier this month, the government unveiled a multi-tier system to deal with spikes in cases locally.

Greater Manchester and South Yorkshire was the latest local authority to be put under Tier 3 — the highest level of alert — with restrictive measures coming into force on Friday and Saturday respectively. Liverpool and the county of Lancashire are also under Tier 3.