The inspection of wastewater to assess the prevalence of coronavirus variants now covers two-thirds of the English population, the British government has announced.
The program tests wastewater samples for traces of the virus, with all positive samples subjected to genome sequencing to determine whether it is a questionable variant, for example the Indian strain.
The Department of Health and Welfare (DHSC) said the program helped identify the need for surge tests in areas like Bristol and Luton.
The system is intended to continue monitoring the wastewater after the surge test is over to ensure that the variant no longer circulates in the area.
The Environmental Health Monitoring Program (EMHP) is led by the Joint Biosecurity Center and is part of the newly established UK Health Security Agency.
The DHSC hopes that post-pandemic wastewater testing will help monitor other viruses like the flu and help the NHS predict which areas are most likely to be affected by outbreaks.
A dedicated wastewater testing laboratory opened in Exeter last month and is now receiving samples collected by Environment Agency scientists at 500 locations across England.
It is estimated that the program now covers two thirds of the English population.
Surveillance in a given catchment area can even pinpoint localized outbreaks without the need for residents to report for swab tests, the DHSC said.
The UK Health Safety Authority’s chief executive officer, Dr. Jenny Harries said: “The sequencing of wastewater samples provides an additional detection system for variants of concern that can help us respond more effectively to outbreaks and better protect citizens.”
The program director of the Joint Biosecurity Center, Dr. Andrew Engeli said: “As infections are decreasing and we are evading national restrictions, it is important to analyze the wastewater to identify variants early so that local authorities and NHS Test and Trace can act quickly to stop variants Dissemination in communities. “
Wastewater testing can also be done in certain facilities such as food manufacturers or prisons.
The DHSC said, “It is not possible to trace the samples from Covid-19 to specific individuals and no personal information will be collected.”
Christina Gray, Director of Community and Public Health for Bristol City Council said, “This technology has helped us feel confident that the picture we saw through the test results reflected the spread of the infection and that there is no pool of it undetected infections that we didn’t know about. “
She added, “If we get to a point where we are completing routine testing, this method could potentially be an effective means of identifying rising infections and helping us take immediate public health action.”