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How sewage from Beckton helps to provide early warning of coronavirus outbreaks

PUBLISHED: 17:00 23 October 2020

The wastewater testing is being led by the Environment Agency’s Starcross laboratory in Exeter. Picture: Environment Agency

The wastewater testing is being led by the Environment Agency’s Starcross laboratory in Exeter. Picture: Environment Agency

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Sewage from the Beckton treatment works and other Thames Water sites is being tested for traces of coronavirus.

Wastewater at the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works is included in the testing. Picture: Environment AgencyWastewater at the Beckton Sewage Treatment Works is included in the testing. Picture: Environment Agency

It’s part of a government-led project providing early warning for local outbreaks across the country and sharing data with NHS Test and Trace.

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

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.

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

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 council, which were able to alert local health bodies to the increased risk and contact people in the area to warn of the increase in cases.

Testing has been rolled out across more 90 wastewater treatment sites in the UK, including 44 plants in England - covering around 22 per cent of the population – with plans to expand it further.

Testing is being led by the Environment Agency, which is collaborating with Defra and the Joint Biosecurity Centre on the English programme.

The Joint Biosecurity Centre is also conducting pilots to test how the approach can generate targeted scientific intelligence to help health authorities make future decisions.

UK Research and Innovation chief executive Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said: “This research shows that our wastewater system can be used to identify coronavirus hotspots early, which could significantly help our ability to contain local outbreaks.”


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