Sewage Signals Covid-19 Outbreaks, A Project Led By The U.K. Government Says

Fragments of Covid-19 can be successfully detected in sewage, providing an early warning mechanism for disease outbreaks and a useful means of identifying large outbreaks of asymptomatic carriers, the British government said on Friday.

Key Facts

A government-led project, which was first launched in June, has now confirmed that fragments of Covid-19 genetic material can be detected in sewage. 

The government said it is sharing the information with NHS Test and Trace — England’s contact tracing system — and local authorities, who can prepare for an increase in cases and encourage greater care and more testing. 

The project is already a success, with sewer data identifying a spike in Covid-19 cases in one region despite there being relatively low numbers of people seeking tests.  

With this early success, the project has already been rolled out to cover around 22% of England’s population, with plans to expand in the future. 

Though fragments of Covid-19 can be detected in sewage, the WHO says the likelihood of contracting the disease through the sewer system is extremely low.

Key Background

There are now a number of studies documenting traces of Covid-19 in waste water, with early ones signalling the potential of this finding to track infections across a geographic area. The early successes of the English project highlight this potential, particularly in identifying otherwise hidden outbreaks. 


Crucial Quote

Environment Secretary George Eustice said the findings are a “significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates… particularly in areas where there may be large numbers of people who aren’t showing any symptoms.”

Further Reading

Sewage can reveal COVID outbreaks, UK project finds (Reuters)

MIT Spinoff Raises $4.2 Million To Estimate Scope Of Coronavirus Cases By Analyzing Poop (Forbes)

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Robert Hart

Robert Hart

I am a London-based reporter for Forbes covering breaking news. Previously, I have worked as a reporter for a specialist legal publication covering big data and as a freelance journalist and policy analyst covering science, tech and health. I have a master’s degree in Biological Natural Sciences and a master’s degree in the History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Cambridge. Follow me on Twitter @theroberthart or email me at 



Data about the coronavirus found in sewage can warn of an outbreak up to seven days before clinical testing shows signs of a spike, say wastewater epidemiologists. That can give public health workers time to get ready – prepare hospitals, ramp up closures and take other measures. “You’re seeing it in sewage before people are really showing the symptoms, days and weeks before,” said Eileen White, director of wastewater for EBMUD, a utility that serves 685,000 households in San Francisco’s East Bay area. Since the pandemic began, the field of wastewater epidemiology, which tracked polio and Ebola viruses, has grown rapidly in response. An international alliance of more than 400 researchers is collaborating to share findings and methods, in an attempt to bring the most accurate information about the disease’s spread to leaders. ————————— LINK:…

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