Wastewater could be key to tracking a second wave of COVID-19

  • International group of water experts are evaluating ways to develop standardised approaches for using wastewater to track the spread of coronavirus
  • Researchers including engineers from the University of Sheffield are developing new techniques that could be used for a number of potential uses including to identify a second wave of the pandemic
  • Wastewater monitoring offers a quick way to identify the level of infection in a community without the need for testing individuals

An underground sewer

As the UK starts to ease its lockdown restrictions, researchers are developing new techniques that could enable wastewater to be used to locate new infection hotspots or to help track a second wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The research, which is bringing together some of the world’s leading experts on wastewater management, is establishing a range of new standardised procedures to identify the virus in wastewater and provide a picture of how COVID-19 is spreading, without the need for testing individuals.

Brought together by the Water Research Foundation, the international group is:

  • Developing best-practices and standardised procedures for collecting and storing water samples
  • Developing best-practices for using molecular genetics tools to identify levels of COVID-19 in wastewater samples
  • Developing recommended approaches for using levels of COVID-19 in water samples to inform trends and estimates of the spread of the virus in communities
  • Developing strategies to communicate the implications of environmental surveillance results with the public health community, elected officials, wastewater workers, and the public

One key component in enabling wastewater to be used to help track the spread of the pandemic is to monitor the presence of COVID-19 virus genetic markers. Professor Vanessa Speight from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil and Structural Engineering is co-leading efforts to establish new data analysis and modelling techniques that can be used to reliably interpret the data collected from wastewater samples.

These techniques could help create a more accurate map of how the virus is spreading as well as the emergence of a second wave of the pandemic. The use of wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 virus occurrence offers a quick way to get an integrated picture of the level of infection across a whole community without the need for testing individuals.

Professor Speight, who is also a member of the Sheffield Water Centre at the University, which works with industry to solve major challenges in the water sector, said: “There is great potential for wastewater to provide valuable information about the occurrence of COVID-19 across communities. But given that this is a very new field of investigation, we have identified a number of areas where future research efforts should be concentrated to maximise the value of this data.”

The group of water experts recently gathered virtually for an International Water Research Summit to share recommendations and exchange early findings.

Each team is now undertaking their research with a view to having results that could be used to help track a second wave of COVID-19 or other future pandemics.

Recommendations made by each team at the summit can be accessed via: https://www.waterrf.org/event/virtual-international-water-research-summit-covid-19

Additional information

Sheffield Water Centre

Engineering at the University of Sheffield

The University of Sheffield

With almost 29,000 of the brightest students from over 140 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.

A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

Sheffield is the only university to feature in The Sunday Times 100 Best Not-For-Profit Organisations to Work For 2018 and for the last eight years has been ranked in the top five UK universities for Student Satisfaction by Times Higher Education.

Sheffield has six Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.

Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline, Siemens and Airbus, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

Sean Barton
Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9852