Testing sewage for Covid could detect outbreaks early, scientists say


Scientists conducting tests for coronavirus in sewage to spot early warnings of where outbreaks are occurring say the approach is working and has helped reveal areas with high infection rates.

The programme has been piloted in the south-west of England since June. The sewage sampling data showed a spike in coronavirus content even though a relatively low number of people in the area had taken tests.

According to the government, the information was passed on to NHS test and trace and the local council, who were able to alert local health professionals to the increased risk and warn people in the area of the increase in cases.

The programme has proved that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be detected in wastewater, the government added. Ministers said the information could provide local authorities with information to take early action to slow the spread of the virus.

Testing has been rolled out across more than 90 wastewater treatment sites in the UK, covering approximately 22% of the population in England, with plans to expand in the future, said the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Sampling is now being carried out at 44 sites in England, 24 in Wales and 28 in Scotland.

The 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.

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