DAERA starts work monitoring NI sewage systems for Covid-19

Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture has started surveillance work monitoring two wastewater sites for levels of Covid-19.

The idea is to create a long-term tracking system for coronavirus levels in the community, and can even detect asymptomatic infections.

The work is underway at Queen’s University Belfast, the Regional Virology Laboratory and the Public Health Agency is funded by DAERA as part of a Science Foundation Ireland Covid-19 research programme.

Researchers have already developed local expertise in new analytical techniques with plans for monitoring to be rolled out to further sites in the coming months.

DAERA has now committed around £400,000 to extend the research project and build capacity to enable a long term wastewater surveillance programme to monitor coronavirus levels in the population.

Such a programme of wastewater surveillance also opens up the possibility for tracking a range of other harmful pathogens of importance in terms of public and animal health.

Speaking about the programme, DAERA Minister Gordon Lyons said: “We need to use every possible weapon we have to fight Covid-19, quickly identify where outbreaks are occurring and stop the spread.

Wastewater sampling can help us keep a watchful eye on levels of the SARS-Cov-2 virus in the community and allow health teams to take early actions.

“I am pleased that my department is playing its part and has partnered with scientists and other government agencies to start the wastewater surveillance programme, which although is in the early stages, has already yielded successful results and will now be scaled up with further sites being monitored in the coming months.”

Detecting asymptomatic infections

The Department of Health and Public Health Agency have indicated that wastewater surveillance will be an important part of the overall approach to the long-term management of the virus and is committed to playing a key role alongside other departments in moving forward in developing wastewater based surveillance.

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “As the virus is shed in high levels in human waste, wastewater testing will become an important element of continuing arrangements to monitor and track virus activity.

It complements clinical surveillance by providing information on the prevalence and spread of disease in the population.

“Importantly, wastewater surveillance can help detect the SARS-Cov-2 virus in both symptomatic and asymptomatic populations and as such will have an important role in helping to monitor overall viral activity and to identify any new variants that may emerge.”