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Tracking COVID-19 through monitoring wastewater in cities in the UK and Africa

Funding will lead to the creation of an ‘early warning system’ tracking the spread of the virus in wastewater in Lagos and Cape Town.

Chemists, biologists and mathematicians from the University of Bath have received funding to monitor wastewater in cities in the UK and Africa, to provide an early warning of the potential spread of COVID-19.

The majority of people infected with SARS-CoV-2- the virus that causes COVID-19 – are believed to shed the virus in their faeces, even if they are asymptomatic, so sewage surveillance is widely seen as a promising way of rapidly identifying emerging disease hotspots before an outbreak spreads more widely. A new project will consider the challenges of monitoring wastewater in African cities including Lagos and Cape Town where sewage systems are typically informal and decentralised.

The project, entitled ‘Building an Early Warning System for community-wide infectious disease spread: SARS-Cov2 tracking in Africa via environment fingerprinting’ has received £436,000 from the Government via UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). It builds on Bath’s water science expertise and a similar UK-based wastewater monitoring project that began in July.

The work will initially see researchers from Bath’s Centre for Sustainable and Circular TechnologiesWater Innovation Research Centre, the Milner Centre for Evolution and the Institute for Mathematical Innovation collaborate with colleagues from Stellenbosch University, South Africa, the University of Lagos, Nigeria, and other local partners to set up a monitoring system comprising regular sampling and analysis of wastewater to track RNA of SARS-Cov2.

Professor Barbara Kasprzyk-Hordern, who is the overall project co-ordinator, says: “The coronavirus has had an unprecedented global impact on humanity. Within weeks it disabled the functioning of whole countries and exposed global vulnerability to this natural disaster.

“It also exposed the acute inability to rapidly identify, contain and manage a virus due to the lack of an early warning system (EWS) focused on rapid identification of SARS-Cov2 hotspots and response. With this project, we are planning to introduce an EWS that will provide information on public health status and disease outbreaks in real time.”

Dr Temilola Oluseyi, of the University of Lagos Department of Chemistry, will lead the work in Nigeria. She says: “Lagos is the epicentre of COVID-19 in Nigeria, having an estimated population of over 20 million people with many residents living in slums and informal settlements scattered across the city.

“With EWS put in place in Lagos, timely intervention and evidence-based decision making will provide key recommendations that other developing countries can adopt in terms of preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks. We expect that the outcome of this research will assist the government and other organisations provide comprehensive interventions to improve the health and quality of life of the vulnerable population in developing countries.”

The project will be led in South Africa by Professor Gideon Wolfaardt of Stellenbosch University.

The work is one of 20 new COVID-19 projects announced by UKRI, funded through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Newton Fund, focused on understanding and developing solutions to mitigate the short and long-term health, social and economic consequences of COVID-19 for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people.

Professor Andrew Thompson, UKRI’s International Champion, said: “COVID-19 is demonstrating just how interconnected our world is and how our biggest challenges transcend rich and poor countries. To find lasting, sustainable solutions to the current pandemic and its aftermath, as well as to make us more resilient for the future, we require global thinking, the mobilisation of global expertise and a global response.

“That is exactly what these new projects provide. Working together, researchers across the UK and the Global South are combining their knowledge and experience to develop innovative solutions to empower local communities to overcome the wide-ranging challenges created by COVID.”

UKRI launched its Agile COVID-19 GCRF and Newton Fund call to address the urgent need to understand the specific challenges faced by some of the world’s poorest people in the face of this global crisis.

These new awards build on the multidisciplinary partnerships formed through the two global funds over the past four years enabling rapid new partnerships between the international development research community, other academics, policy makers, governments and community groups across the UK and over 20 developing countries. The projects, totalling around £7.5 million, will be carried out over the next 18 months.

By 14 September 2020

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