Sewage monitoring could provide an early warning of COVID-19 outbreaks

Wastewater in sewage systems could provide a quicker and earlier indication of the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

Estimating virus concentrations

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated that SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19 virus, does not readily spread through sewage and wastewater systems. However, non-infectious genetic residues of the virus, not unlike other microbes, can remain in wastewater systems in the locations where infected people go to the toilet.

Scientists at Newcastle University, UK, and the University of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, working with water industry partners Northumbrian Water and Labaqua, part of the SUEZ corporation, are monitoring sewage from across networks in Spain and North East England to develop a way to estimate the prevalence of the COVID-19 virus across the regions.

Their new project, which has been funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council (EPSRC), is being co-led by Professor David Graham, Professor of Ecosystems Engineering, and Dr Marcos Quintela-Baluja  both from Newcastle University, with their close colleague Professor Jesus Romalde in Santiago.

The work will not identify whether individual people are infected, but by monitoring sewage from different places across a region, the research team will be able to estimate local concentrations of the virus and potentially link levels back to human population numbers. This could help public health officials identify possible infection ‘hot spots’ and could be especially helpful in places where infected people do not show any symptoms.

Professor Graham said: “Without the capacity to test each person individually, particularly people without symptoms, we have limited information about how widespread the virus is or whether it is affecting some communities more than others.

“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.”

Northumbrian Water’s Wastewater director, Richard Warneford, said: “We’re proud to be working with our partners at Newcastle University on this globally significant project.

“Our wastewater teams are working with their engineers and scientists to safely gather and analyse data and we’re hoping that together we can help make a difference in the battle against COVID-19.”