LONDON — The U.K. government is considering testing sewage for the presence of the coronavirus as part of its national epidemic monitoring program.
Studies in France and the Netherlands have shown that the coronavirus can be detected in waste water and research is underway in both the U.K. and the U.S. to see whether testing its prevalence in sewers could form part of epidemic surveillance — particularly in the detection of local or regional hotspots.
A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) confirmed to POLITICO: “We are actively engaging with the research community and government scientific advisers to investigate whether monitoring waste water could be used as a way of tracking the prevalence of the virus.”
With the U.K. now past the peak of the first wave of the outbreak, attention is increasingly turning to how the epidemic can be closely monitored and outbreaks contained where they arise, so that lockdown measures can be gradually eased.
This will be carried out primarily via testing and isolating of symptomatic people and their contacts, as part of the government’s “test, track and trace” strategy. But it is hoped that monitoring for the virus in waste water could act as a complementary early-warning system for new outbreaks.
A similar approach is being considered in the U.S. A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control told POLITICO last week the agency is “exploring the potential for waste water testing to inform the response.”
Another study is underway in U.K. and Spain, run jointly by Newcastle University and the University of Santiago de Compostela, with support from Northumbria Water and Labaqua, the BBC reported.
The authors of the French study — conducted by researchers from the Sorbonne University and Eau de Paris — concluded that monitoring of waste water “may provide an alternative and possibly early tool to detect pathogens in populations when investigations in humans is difficult for logistic, ethical or economic reasons.”
While coronavirus in sewage systems has been detected in several countries, there is no evidence that it can transmitted to people through sewers. “The World Health Organization is clear there is currently no evidence that coronavirus has been transmitted via sewerage systems,” the Defra spokesperson said.