Sewage signals early warning of coronavirus outbreaks

A government-led project is successfully detecting traces of coronavirus in sewage, providing an early warning for local outbreaks across the country and sharing data with NHS Test and Trace.

The programme, which was first announced in June, 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.

The 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. This will allow local authorities to take early action to slow the spread of the virus.

The data will be shared with NHS Test and Trace and inform where new outbreaks may be happening. It means that public health professionals can speak directly to institutions where there may be spikes in infection. Those institutions can in turn can encourage people to get tested or take extra precautions.

The project has already worked successfully in an area in the South West of England, where sewage sampling data showed a spike in coronavirus material despite relatively low numbers of people seeking tests.

This was passed on to NHS Test and Trace and the local council, who were able to alert local health professionals to the increased risk and contact people in the area to warn of the increase in cases.

Testing has now been rolled out across more than 90 wastewater treatment sites in the UK, covering approximately 22 per cent of the population in England, with plans to expand in the future.