A UCD research project led by Professor Wim Meijer, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, has created a standard approach to tracking COVID-19 through wastewater. Researchers can access a more precise infection rate by monitoring the sewage in Irish treatment plants.

People infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus have genetic material from the virus contained in their faeces and this RNA can be detected in sewage. The amount of virus genetic material identified by researchers will reflect the number of people infected. This method also identifies those who are asymptomatic and may never get tested. 

Last summer, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) donated €48,666 to the study, and in September, NPHET first endorsed the use of wastewater surveillance as part of the national fight against COVID-19. The surveillance can act as an early warning system for increasing levels of the virus, it can evaluate the effectiveness of health mandated control measures and it can determine early changes in prevalence areas.

The project combines the expertise of microbiologists, environmental biologists, virologists, and engineers from across the country to monitor the level of SARS-CoV-2 in water treatment plants in Dublin, Wicklow, and Northern Ireland. Their expertise will determine if the virus is still infectious, how long the virus takes to decay in sea and river water and clarify the fate of the virus in the environment.

In November, NPHET recommended that the NVRL and the HSE/HPSC implement a robust national wastewater surveillance network for SARS-CoV-2 that could be expanded to incorporate surveillance of other pathogens in the months and years ahead.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) released a statement last month saying that although the Coronavirus pandemic has been severe it is “not necessarily the big one” and that there is a continuing risk of new pandemics. As a result, having a tool that can assess infection rates within a population will be beneficial. 

Speaking to the College Tribune, Professor Meijer described the project as a “sentinel approach” which is being adopted by many countries across the globe. He explained that wastewater trends are in sync with the clinical data as samples are taken from treatment plants twice a week. Meijer hopes to expand the project and study wastewater from treatment plants across the country. Meijer concluded that the benefits of wastewater testing are that it is easier to identify clusters in specific subpopulations and also note mutations that survive new vaccines. 

Emma Hanrahan – Assistant News Editor