Sewage under the microscope to create clearer picture of Scotland's Covid-19 infections

A major genetic testing programme analysing levels of coronavirus in sewage has got under way in a bid to help assess infection rates across Scotland.

The study will look for fragments of non-infective Covid-19 ribonucleic acid (RNA) - a genetic footprint which can be measured in waste water even after the virus has been destroyed.

It’s hoped the findings will help highlight local spikes in the illness.

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Samples will be taken from waste water systems serving around half of the Scottish population and could, in combination with community testing and hospital admissions data, help reveal trends in the prevalence and distribution of the virus in Scotland.

Fragments of non-infectious genetic material from Covid-19 are secreted by patients and end up in the sewerage system

If successful, the trial could form the basis of an ongoing monitoring programme that would provide additional information to back up the nation’s Test and Protect strategy in response to the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation has said there is currently no evidence that coronavirus has been transmitted via sewerage systems.

The research is being undertaken by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa), the University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute and Scottish Water.

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

Samples of waste water from around half of the Scottish population will be analysed to help identify local spikes in coronavirus infections

Terry A’Hearn, chief executive of Sepa, said: “We believe we are one of the first agencies in Europe to begin this work.

“Our hope is that our analysis could provide useful data in Scotland’s efforts to trace the virus.

“However, we first have to understand what the samples are telling us and that’s the important work our experts, alongside Health Protection Scotland, the Roslin Institute and others in the scientific community, are embarking on now.”

The first samples from eight health board areas are now being analysed in Sepa’s Lanarkshire Angus Smith laboratories, using the latest techniques trialled by the Roslin Institute and other leading academic institutions.

The trial has received funding from the state-backed Centre of Expertise for Waters (Crew).

Environment secretary Roseanna Cunningham said: “The Covid-19 pandemic has been an unprecedented global crisis which has fundamentally affected us all.

“There has of course been much research work carried out globally to better monitor, assess and understand the virus.

“Such work is crucial to ensure our recovery and 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.”

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