Tuesday, May 04, 2021

Inside a public sewer. Image for illustration purposes

By Carmel Hayes

SEWAGE from homes in two Laois towns is about to be tested for Covid-19, as part of a national surveillance programme.

Wastewater from houses and other properties in Portlaoise and Portarlington will be monitored for the presence of the virus, which can be detected in sewage systems.

The two largest towns in Laois are among almost 70 locations nationwide selected for the National SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) Wastewater Surveillance Programme. The testing will begin in early May.

The HSE says the programme has been developed by a specialist team, with input from the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), HSE, HIU, the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science and Irish Water.

In a statement, the HSE said the surveillance will be an important part of work undertaken to monitor the prevalence of Covid, in communities in Laois and across the country.

The programme will measure the level of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage within 68 wastewater catchment areas and will effectively operate as an early warning system for possible future waves of Covid-19.

Lead investigator Professor Wim Meijer of the UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science said that a pilot study, funded by SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) and the Ireland Wales Programme 2014 – 2020 through the European Regional Development Fund, involving three wastewater treatment plants, showed “a very close correlation” between the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and the daily number of Covid cases.

He said: “This demonstrates the usefulness of wastewater surveillance as a SARS-CoV-2 early warning system.”

HPSC director Dr John Cuddihy explained that waste can reveal information about the virus and how to respond.

Dr Cuddihy said: “Monitoring wastewater for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 is an internationally recognised tool in many Governments’ efforts to assess the rate of infection across the population, both as a whole and within individual communities.  Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in wastewater captures both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

“As such, it helps evaluate how effective specific public health measures are and can be an important early warning sign of increasing SARS-CoV-2 activity in the community.  It can also help inform those locations in which increased and enhanced SARS-CoV-2 testing and preventative measures might be of benefit.”

The HSE said 68 wastewater catchment areas, covering each county in Ireland, were selected for the programme, as it would not be practical or feasible to monitor all of Ireland’s more than 1,100 public wastewater catchment areas, where wastewater is collected and conveyed for treatment.

The selection of sewage systems in each county aims to capture the position across the country as broadly as possible, ensuring that the largest population centres are monitored. A comprehensive national environmental early warning surveillance system will be established as a result of the programme.

At least two catchment areas in each county are included, covering 84% of the population connected to a public wastewater treatment plant.

Results will be reported by the project team and communicated by the HPSC to key organisations, including the HSE Public Health Departments, the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG) and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).  The findings will inform testing strategy and the initiation of preventive public health measures.

When results are available, they will be posted regularly on the HPSC website.


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