Bath University role in school early-warning system

Scientists and engineers from the University of Bath are set to investigate how monitoring wastewater at schools in England could provide an early warning system for coronavirus outbreaks.

As part of the new TERM* project led by Middlesex University, they will help monitor sewer-bound water at schools to look for microscopic evidence of coronavirus and advise on how the data collected could be turned into an early warning system. It’s hoped that wastewater monitoring could provide an effective, fast, inexpensive and anonymous way of detecting outbreaks of viruses such as the SARS-Cov-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

The study will provide new evidence on the safety of schools reopening and additional insights on transmission of coronavirus from children-to-children and children-to-adults. The £2.4 million project is funded by the NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing Team.

Middlesex University is leading the study in collaboration with Test and Trace’s Joint Biosecurity Centre and researchers from Bath, as well as Cranfield University, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Imperial College London, and University College London. The London Assembly Health Committee, Brent Council, and The London Drainage Engineers Group are members of the stakeholder group.

The TERM project has four key objectives:

  • Collate new evidence on the incidence and prevalence of COVID-19 in schools and how this associates with local cases
  • Determine whether a wastewater surveillance system can work at school level, i.e. establish the effectiveness of extracting non-infectious SARS-CoV-2 RNA fragments (the virus that results in COVID-19) from in-school wastewater systems
  • Evaluate the costs of undertaking a wastewater surveillance system at a large scale
  • Explore the feasibility of implementing an early-warning system based on wastewater surveillance data at a community level

Professor Jan Hofman, Director of Bath’s Water Innovation and Research Centre (WIRC@Bath), said: “Sewer surveillance has an important role as an early warning system for SARS-CoV-2 infections. The virus can be detected in wastewater in the early stages of an infection, ahead of the outbreak. With this project we can further increase our understanding of how the virus spreads and get it under control. It can hopefully give us a clear view on effective protection measures for pupils, their parents and teachers.

“Within WIRC@Bath we have strong experience and expertise in wastewater monitoring and our links with our institutions, ranging from our UK partners on the TERM project, to the KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands which has led on global monitoring of SARS-CoV-2, to other partners in Africa and around the world, allow us to work very effectively and share our findings quickly.”

Dr Andrew Singer of the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) said: “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.”

Commenting on the study, John Hatwell, Director of NHS Test and Trace Surveillance Testing (Pillar 4) said: “The TERM project is another step forward in our commitment to defeating this invisible killer. We are excited to have Middlesex University lead this study and the potential it offers to identify COVID-19 outbreaks in schools and inform response measures. Not only will the results help us better understand transmission amongst children, but they will enable us to support the safe reopening of schools.”

Researchers are currently working with schools and setting up laboratories. The aim is to monitor 70 schools throughout England.

The work expands on the existing wastewater monitoring work at the University of Bath, including the N-WESP partnership project to estimate COVID-19 cases from UK wastewater and a similar effort in partnership with Universities in Nigeria and South Africa.