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Middlesex University academics lead research to investigate coronavirus prevalence in the wastewater in schools

23/10/2020
Middlesex University is leading the study, TERM, to investigate coronavirus prevalence in sewage from schools in England

TERM* is a new project looking for traces of SARS-CoV-2 virus in the wastewater of schools to establish whether this could provide a useful ‘early warning’ system of infection levels. 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 Cranfield University, the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, University of Bath, 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.

“Most of our knowledge on children comes from a period of general schools’ closure and the recent reopening of schools is a big unknown in terms of its impact on the second wave. We are very aware of how uncertain this period is for schools, parents, and the whole of society. We hope to help schools remain open under safe conditions and to prompt a rapid community level response when at risk. Routine wastewater surveillance has the potentiality to inform the targeted use of community level testing. The potential long term sustainability of this approach is what makes it unique”. Principal Investigator, Dr Mariachiara Di Cesare at Middlesex University

Professor Lian Lundy at Middlesex University added “The TERM project will generate real world data on the resource implications of undertaking sewer surveillance at priority sites such as schools and care homes”.

Dr Francis Hassard (Co-Principal Investigator of TERM) and Lecturer in Public Health Microbiology at Cranfield University, said: “We know the key to tackling COVID-19, in advance of effective pharmaceutical intervention, is effective test, trace and isolation of infective individuals. Near source tracking of school wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 allows us to pinpoint potential outbreaks in advance and put in place effective public health interventions to prevent spread. We are delighted to be taking part in this vital national effort to minimise COVID’s impact to children’s education and the economy.”

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 re-opening of schools.”

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

Find out more about studying Environmental Science at Middlesex.

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