The current Coronavirus pandemic has unleashed a health and economic crisis, unprecedented in modern times, affecting our entire infrastructure and N-WESP (National COVID-19 Wastewater Epidemiology Surveillance Programme) directly underpins national efforts to monitor and contain the spread of the virus. Early studies have shown that SARS-CoV-2 RNA can be recovered from wastewater, including from wastewater treatment plants (WWTP) preceding local COVID-19 hospitalisation activity.

Understanding how SARS-CoV-2 RNA entering the sewage system relates to the presence of COVID-19 in the community inform on hotspots and early detection of future outbreaks. Working with our partners, the project’s primary aim is to support the Joint Biosecurity Centre’s National Surveillance programme of wastewater epidemiology with well characterised methods, understanding of uncertainties and capacity for catchment and sub-catchment surveillance. N-WESP will achieve this aim through the following objectives:

  • To develop and optimise protocols for the quantitative recovery of SARS-CoV-2 RNA from wastewater.
  • To develop models to quantitatively relate SARS-CoV-2 RNA from wastewater to active cases of COVID-19 in the wastewater catchment population.
  • To determine whether SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater and sludge is infectious, and to what extent there might be downstream risks to human health.
  • To exploit catchment and, uniquely, sub-catchment-scale longitudinal surveillance to understand temporal and spatial heterogeneity, relationships to human disease burden distribution and whether there are potential outbreak ‘hotspots’.

This 16 month NERC (National Environment Research Council) funded programme is led by Dr Andrew Singer of UKCEH (UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology) and brings together experts from a wide range of disciplines, universities and research organisations.