National COVID-19 wastewater surveillance programme following UCD pilot testing

Posted 4 May, 2021

The nation's wastewater is to be monitored for COVID-19 following a successful pilot scheme by UCD researchers.

The HSE has announced that a national surveillance programme is to begin next month that will measure for the presence of the virus at 68 catchment areas across the country.

This will effectively operate as an early warning system for future possible waves of COVID-19.

“The pilot study, funded by SFI and the Ireland Wales Programme 2014 – 2020 through the European Regional Development Fund, involving three wastewater treatment plants showed a very close correlation between the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and the daily number of new COVID-19 cases,” said Lead Investigator Professor Wim MeijerUCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science.

“This demonstrates the usefulness of wastewater surveillance as a SARS-CoV-2 early warning system.”

During their pilot testing Professor Meijer and his team at UCD studied the levels of markers for COVID-19 called RNA, in sewage.

The researchers sampled wastewater from the Ringsend and Shanganagh treatment plants in south Dublin and Enniskerry waste water plant in north Wicklow.

“Monitoring wastewater for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 is an internationally recognised tool in many Governments’ efforts to assess the rate of infection across the population, both as a whole and within individual communities,” said Dr John Cuddihy, Director of HPSC.

“Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in wastewater captures both symptomatic and asymptomatic people. As such, it helps evaluate how effective specific public health measures are, and can be an important early warning sign of increasing SARS-CoV-2 activity in the community.

He added: “It can also help inform those locations in which increased and enhanced SARS-CoV-2 testing and preventative measures might be of benefit.”

The national surveillance programme has been developed by a specialist team, with input from the HPSC, the HSE, HIU, the National Virus Reference Laboratory, UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and Irish Water.

The 68 wastewater catchment areas selected for testing were jointly determined by the HSE, Irish Water, and UCD, following analysis which took area coverage and population density into account.

At least two catchment areas per county are included, covering 84% of the population connected to a public wastewater treatment plant.

Results of the programme will be reported by the HSE Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC) to key organisations including the HSE Public Health Departments, the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG), and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

They will also be posted on the HPSC’s website at regular intervals.

By: David Kearns, Digital Journalist / Media Officer, UCD University Relations