A new £2.4 million study will examine the feasibility of using secondary schools' wastewater in England as a non-intrusive means of coronavirus infection surveillance.

The project, TERM, is being led by Middlesex University and also involves the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH), Cranfield University, the University of Bath, Imperial College London and University College London. The research, funded by the NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing Team, will provide new evidence that will help public health authorities better manage school-related COVID-19 risks. It will also provide additional insights on transmission of coronavirus among children and from children to adults, and any associations with cases in the wider community.

The researchers will monitor in-school wastewater systems for RNA fragments of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes the COVID-19 disease. Their study will initially involve 70 schools throughout England and evaluate the costs of undertaking a wastewater surveillance system at a larger scale.

Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH, which is contributing to sample analysis and data management as part of the project, says: “Near-source detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater is an emerging field that can potentially offer rapid insights into the health of a particular population, in a manner that is inexpensive, anonymous, and non-invasive for the people surveyed. TERM is piloting what might be the future of population health surveillance.”

Near-source detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater can potentially offer rapid insights into the health of a particular population - Dr Andrew Singer

Dr Mariachiara Di Cesare of Middlesex University, principal investigator of the TERM project, adds: “Most of our knowledge on children comes from a period of general schools’ closure and the recent reopening of schools is a big unknown in terms of its impact on the second wave. We are very aware of how uncertain this period is for schools, parents, and the whole of society. We hope to help schools remain open under safe conditions and to prompt a rapid community level response when at risk.”

The researchers are currently working with schools and setting up laboratories, and will also be collaborating with the Joint Biosecurity Centre. The centre, part of the NHS Test and Trace service, provides evidence-based, independent analysis to inform local and national decision-making in response to COVID-19 outbreaks.

John Hatwell, Director of NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing, says: “The TERM project is another step forward in our commitment to defeating this invisible killer.

“Not only will the results help us better understand transmission amongst children, but they will enable us to support the safe reopening of schools.”

For more on the TERM project, visit www.termproject.org

Further information

A separate £1m research programme, led by UKCEH, is investigating whether analysis of wastewater can be used to estimate the number of COVID-19 cases in a population as well as assessing the infection risk of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage. The National Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme (N-WESP), involving scientists from several UK research institutes, is developing the technical sampling, analytical and modelling methods to assist the England, Scotland and Wales national wastewater surveillance programmes.

N-WESP, which began in July, is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council as part of the UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to COVID-19.