NI health authorities to test sewage to keep track of spread of Covid-19

The Department of Health in Northern Ireland plans to test sewage for coronavirus in order to keep an eye on how the virus is spreading through the population, it has emerged.

Monday, 26th April 2021, 6:01 am
A lab worker handles coronavirus test samples, as NI health authorities move to test wastewater for the virus

That is just one of the measures to keep a lid on the pandemic found in a recent update to the department’s ‘Covid-19 response strategy’, outlined in a 42-page document published last week .

Testing sewage could even help scientists spot any new variants that crop up, the document states.

“Wastewater surveillance can detect the SARS-Cov-2 virus in both symptomatic and asymptomatic populations,” it explains.

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“As such, testing will become an important part of the overall approach to the long-term management and tracking of the virus.

“Wastewater surveillance complements clinical surveillance by providing information on the prevalence and spread of disease in the population and will have an important role in monitoring overall viral activity and in identifying any new variants that may emerge.”

Two wastewater treatment sites are already undergoing “sampling and testing”, it adds, with plans for further sites to be developed “in the coming months”.

The department say the testing work also raises the possibility of “tracking a range of other harmful pathogens of importance in terms of both public and animal health”.

Other testing work outlined in the document includes antibody testing for health workers, and testing for variants as part of the national Covid-19 Genomics UK Consortium.

It also explains how an ‘education support cell’ has been working since September to support schools when cases of coronavirus are identified.

All the data gathered will be used to “inform the public health response by the Northern Ireland Executive,” it adds.

The document covers new testing technologies, contact tracing, supporting capacity and resilience in the wider health system, rebuilding plans, primary care, Covid centres, financial support, dental services, PPE and workforce support.

A spokesperson for the department said: “This Covid-19 Response Strategy is a living document and has been updated to reflect the rapidly changing environment since the start of the pandemic.

“It gives a detailed overview of activity undertaken across the department and the wider health and social care system.”

Health Minister Robin Swann said: “The policy and planning work undertaken in response to Covid-19 has been immense and it is good to see it documented and summarised in this form.

“Policy and planning work happens behind the scenes, often without a great degree of recognition or publicity. It is no less vital for that. I remain in awe of the work undertaken right across the health and social care system in response to the pandemic.”