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Little Marlow sewage signals early warning of coronavirus outbreaks

Little Marlow sewage signals early warning of coronavirus outbreaks

Sewage being checked for coronavirus

Wastewater at a treatment site in Little Marlow is being checked for signs of coronavirus.

A government-led project is detecting traces of COVID-19 in sewage - providing early warning for local outbreaks across the country, and sharing data with NHS Test and Trace.

The programme, announced in June, has proven that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be found in wastewater.

This can then indicate where a local community or an institution is experiencing a spike in cases.

Sewage treated at Thames Water sites including Little Marlow are included in the testing.

Results can provide health professionals with a clearer picture of infection rates by identifying where there are high numbers, particularly for asymptomatic carriers and before people show symptoms.

Data will be shared with NHS Test and Trace and inform where new outbreaks may be happening.

The project has already worked successfully in south-west England, where sewage sampling showed an increase in coronavirus material despite relatively low numbers of people seeking tests. 

This information was passed to NHS Test and Trace and the local council, which were able to alert health bodies to the increased risk and contact people in the area.

Testing has now been rolled out across more than 90 wastewater treatment sites in the UK.

Defra, the Environment Agency and the Joint Biosecurity Centre are collaborating on the English programme. 

Environment secretary George Eustice said: “This is a significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates both nationally and locally, particularly in areas where there may be large numbers of people who aren’t showing any symptoms and therefore aren’t seeking tests.

“NHS Test and Trace is able to use the science to ensure local health leads are alerted and can take action. 

“We are continuing to look at how this programme can be refined as one of the many measures we’re using to slow the spread of the virus and protect local communities.”

Health secretary Matt Hancock added: “Monitoring and sampling wastewater offers another tool to help us identify outbreaks early on – helping NHS Test and Trace and local authorities target hotspots quickly and effectively."

The World Health Organization is clear that the likelihood of coronavirus being transmitted via sewage systems is extremely low or negligible.   

Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said: “Sewage is a rich source of information about community health. I recently visited Starcross laboratory [EA laboratory in Exeter] and saw the testing, monitoring and analysis carried out by wastewater experts.

“I was inspired by their collaborative approach with academics, industry and government to help provide an early-warning system for local coronavirus outbreaks.”

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