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Scotland tests for Covid-19 in sewage works

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Sewage is being tested for traces of Covid-19 in a trial aimed at helping monitor the spread of coronavirus across Scotland.

As part of the trial, samples from wastewater at treatment works in each of the country’s 14 NHS health board areas will be analysed by Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) scientists.

The scientists are expanding on work started by Scottish Water and academic partners from the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute to monitor the levels of fragments of Covid-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) in wastewater.

Experts hope the data could help understand trends in the prevalence and distribution of the virus in Scotland. This is combined with community testing and hospital admissions data.

“As one of the first European Environmental Protection Agencies to do so, we’re in the early stages of this exploratory work to trace the presence of coronavirus RNA in Scotland’s wastewater,” said Sepa chief executive Terry A’Hearn. 

“Our expertise in designing and implementing monitoring networks, coupled with our scientific capabilities, meant that we were able to get up and running quickly with the support of our partners. We believe we are one of the first agencies in Europe to begin this work.”

A’Hearn added the organisation hopes their analysis could provide useful data in Scotland’s efforts to trace the virus, with Sepa estimating the samples will represent wastewater from 40 to 50 per cent of the Scottish population.

Currently, the first wastewater samples from eight health board areas are being analysed in Sepa’s Lanarkshire Angus Smith laboratories.

The World Health Organization, however, has said there is currently no evidence that coronavirus has been transmitted through sewerage systems.

“Detecting viral genetic material in wastewater is relatively easy; however, the challenge is measuring how much genetic material is present accurately and relating that to disease levels in the community,” said Dr Alexander Corbishley from the Roslin Institute. 

Sepa said funding from the Centre of Expertise for Waters, which is supported by the Scottish government, has allowed scientists in Scotland to work with academic colleagues across the UK to keep pace with international developments in the rapidly expanding field of wastewater epidemiology.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented global crisis which has fundamentally affected us all,” said environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham. “There has of course been much research work carried out globally to better monitor, assess and understand the virus.”

Cunningham has welcomed the project and said that such work is crucial in ensuring Scotland’s recovery from the health crisis. She declared: “I welcome this important project being undertaken by Sepa, Scottish Water, academia and other partners to monitor the prevalence of the virus across the Scottish population.”

In other news, the government is piloting a coronavirus saliva test that could become an alternative to the existing invasive, and sometimes painful, deep nasal and throat swab.

According to the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), this new test only requires the individual to spit into a sample pot to be tested for current Covid-19 infection. 

The trial is due to be launched in Southampton this week – and over 14,000 people working in GP surgeries, universities and other frontline roles have been recruited for its first phase.

Participants will receive test results within 48 hours and details of those who test positive will be shared with the NHS Test and Trace Programme. It is hoped the new tests will significantly boost existing testing capacity and accessibility.

“Saliva testing could potentially make it even easier for people to take coronavirus tests at home, without having to use swabs,” said health secretary Matt Hancock. “This trial will also help us learn if routine, at-home testing could pick up cases of the virus earlier.”

The test was developed by biomedical firm Optigene, and the DHSC said it is also looking at other non-swab, saliva-based tests from four other companies. The DHSC added it is also working with a number of manufacturers ready to scale-up production of the kits.

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