A pilot programme monitoring coronavirus in Wales’ sewage systems is finding that virus spikes in the community can be detected in local waste water.
The programme, launched in June, is now monitoring 20 sites across Wales and covers 80% of the Welsh population.
Researchers from Welsh universities were the first to start the national surveillance of COVID-19 in major urban centres in the UK, and the technology to do this was first developed in Wales also.
They have been measuring the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in waste water as the presence of this in human waste is common in almost all confirmed coronavirus cases.
The amount of virus in wastewater has already been used to monitor the success of the first lockdown period and the data is shared with the Welsh Test Trace Protect system to inform where new outbreaks may be.
There is no evidence however that coronavirus is spread via sewage systems, says the World Health Organisation.
The Welsh Government awarded almost £500,000 of funding to a consortium led by Bangor University, working with Cardiff University, Public Health Wales and Dwr Cymru Welsh Water.
The Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething, said:
To halt the spread of the coronavirus we needed a way to measure it within our communities and monitor any changes. This pilot programme has allowed us to develop an independent system capable of providing an early warning notification and to provide signals on the levels of coronavirus infections in our communities. This project is already complementing our wider public health programmes, including our successful Test Trace Protect programme.
This programme has already proved to be yet another opportunity to strengthen the existing partnerships we have in Wales in our environmental sciences, disease surveillance and pathogen genomics.
Professor of Soil and Environmental Science at Bangor University, Davey Jones, said:
We have been monitoring viruses like Norovirus and Hepatitis in human sewage for the last decade, as part of a programme to evaluate levels of these viruses in the community. We added COVID-19 to the surveillance list in March this year.
We showed that viral levels in wastewater mapped really well onto the success of lockdown measures in the first COVID-19 wave and to the emergence of the second wave. We are now using it to track the emergence and control of COVID-19 cases and working on new pilots to map the virus at both the local and the regional scale.
Professor at Cardiff University’s Organisms and Environment Division, Andrew Weightman, said:
By monitoring the SARS-CoV-2 virus signal in wastewater to map the occurrence of COVID-19 across Wales, we are demonstrating the substantial benefits of wastewater surveillance for public health in our nation.
The Welsh Government funding for this project has provided us with the resources rapidly to build the research infrastructure and linkages for a dynamic consortium involving Cardiff and Bangor Universities, Public Health Wales and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water. This is allowing us to generate, analyse and communicate data that will be used to help track the spread of the virus during the present COVID-19 emergency.
The project is helping us to understand more about the pandemic, and inform others: researchers, healthcare professionals, government and policy makers, and the public.
In addition to monitoring for coronavirus, the systems established will also be able to determine whether other types of respiratory viruses, noroviruses and hepatitis, which will help with public health surveillance.
A second waste water project is underway at Swansea University, who are developing a fully integrated sampling and reporting device to predict the outbreak of Covid-19 infections, funded by the Welsh Government.