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Newcastle scientists monitor sewage to detect COVID-19 hotspots

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Newcastle University scientists are collaborating on a project which monitors sewage to estimate the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus in any given region.

Although the World Health Organisation has stated that the COVID-19 virus does not readily spread through sewage and wastewater systems, non-infectious genetic residues of the virus can be isolated from urine and faeces and survive for several days outside of a living organism in wastewater systems. This means that areas with high concentrations of people infected with the virus will have higher concentrations of this genetic residue in their sewage, and thus could provide an indication of the spread of COVID-19.

While this will not identify whether individual people are infected, researchers will be able to use the samples to estimate local concentrations of the virus. This can show how widespread the virus is and which communities are being the most affected, and could help public health officials identify possible infection ‘hot spots’. This is especially beneficial when regarding both the limits on individual testing and the fact that not all infected people show symptoms.

The project is being co-led by two professors at Newcastle University – Professor David Graham and Dr Marcos Quintela-Baluja – and Professor Jesus Romalde from the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The project is funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, and is being developed in collaboration with water industry partners Northumbrian Water and Labaqua

The researchers and water companies are trialling the system by monitoring sewage from across networks in Spain and North East England.

Discussing the research, Professor David Graham, Professor of Ecosystems Engineering, said: “Sewage epidemiology is now being used around the world in addressing the COVID-19 pandemic. Our work here is to develop local solutions, but also to assist global efforts, by developing tools for predicting spread at a much earlier stage.”

An earlier wastewater study conducted by Dutch researchers discovered that even in areas with few confirmed cases on COVID-19, traces remained present in the sewers.

Last modified: 1st May 2020

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