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Pilot project could provide early warning system for new Covid-19 outbreaks

20 June 2020

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A pilot project to monitor Covid-19 levels in sewage could help flag early signs of fresh coronavirus outbreaks in Welsh communities.

The consortium, including Cardiff and Bangor universities, Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water and Public Health Wales, will look at samples from wastewater treatment plants across Wales to help monitor spread.

The intelligence gathered can be used to monitor the infection rate of the virus in the community - and could even help scientists predict new peaks of infection.

The pilot programme has been awarded almost half a million pounds, Health Minister Vaughan Gething confirmed today.

Professor Andrew Weightman, Head of the Organisms and Environment Division at Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, said: “Knowledge of how this virus is spreading in the community is a vital part of controlling Covid-19, particularly as lockdown measures are eased.

“Wastewater monitoring of Sars-CoV-2 provides an alternative approach. It’s a simple way for us to determine the level of infection in a large community.

“Research suggests people start to shed the virus in faeces up to about two weeks before they get symptoms so this approach can also be used as an early warning system to indicate when levels of the virus are rising in the community.

This will help us predict the potential re-emergence of Covid-19 outbreaks - and ultimately help us protect communities across Wales.

Professor Andy Weightman Professor

The project will focus on urban centres where the risk of transmission is greatest and will also monitor levels of other viruses and pathogens circulating in Wales.

The pilot programme will be funded for an initial six months and sampling will begin almost immediately in a small number of water treatment plants, rapidly expanding to up to 20 treatment plants that cover approximately 75% of the Welsh population.

Professor Weightman, who also works with the University’s Water Research Institute, added: “I cannot remember feeling so passionate about a research project, and I know my colleagues feel the same.

“The alliance we’re building between Cardiff and Bangor, with the close collaboration of Public Health Wales and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water,  is something very unusual and exciting – an extraordinary meeting of minds and blend of expertise.

“Our vision is that this project will help to establish a pan-Wales centre of excellence for world-class research and innovation to combat emerging, epidemic and pandemic diseases by wastewater monitoring of pathogenic viruses and other bacteria.”

Minister for Health and Social Services Mr Gething said: “To halt the spread of the coronavirus we need to measure it within our communities and monitor changes. This pilot programme will allow us to develop an early warning system to provide signals on the levels of coronavirus infections in the community. This will complement our wider public health programmes, including testing.

“The funding provides the opportunity to build upon existing strengths and partnerships that we have in Wales in environmental sciences, disease surveillance and pathogen genomics. I’m pleased to be working with partners from across Wales.”

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