EU to rely on wastewater surveillance to track COVID-19 variants

Water pipes of a pump house in Hungary. [EPA-EFE/SOKI]

Wastewater surveillance can be used to track the spread of new variants of the coronavirus among Europe’s population, the EU’s Environment Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius told EURACTIV.

“In combination with other classical indicators, [surveillance] can provide essential information for the management of the pandemic,” Sinkevičius said, adding that it is a cost-effective, rapid and reliable complementary tool.

On 17 March, the Commission released a recommendation on a common approach to establish systematic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in wastewater in the EU, calling member states to have wastewater monitoring systems in place by 1 October 2021.

The recommendation asks member states to put in place wastewater surveillance systems and ensure that relevant data is promptly provided to the competent health authorities before being handed on to the European exchange platform.

The platform is now under development by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre (JRC) in cooperation with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).

The recommendation also sets out guidance that countries are encouraged to take on the more systematic use of wastewater monitoring and inclusion in national testing strategies, focusing on the emergence and spread of coronavirus variants.

Sinkevičius said that wastewater surveillance can provide an “early warning” of the emergence or re-emergence of the virus and its variants in a community.

“To put it in context, monitoring just 6,000 collection points allows the wastewater of 70% of the EU population to be tracked,” the Lithuanian added.

In the latest ECDC Rapid Risk Assessment published on 15 February, the usefulness of environmental surveillance of sewage systems is acknowledged as an alternative method for community-level screening.

Contacted by EURACTIV, an ECDC spokesperson explained that monitored data would help estimate the geographic distribution of the pandemic and would offer a rough indication of the effectiveness of response measures.

Silvia Monteiro, a microbial water quality researcher from Portugal’s Lisbon University, said that wastewater monitoring allows the detection of SARS-CoV-2 a few days ahead of the onset of symptoms.

“Therefore it could help guide clinical testing, allowing to detect hotspots of infection in a community, with the benefit of having a more targeted clinical testing,” she pointed out.

She added that testing wastewater means an entire community can be tested anonymously.

Some countries already have their own monitoring systems

According to the EU’s infectious disease agency, one of the challenges might be the tight deadline set by the Commission, as countries starting from scratch may struggle to meet it in time.

For Ricardo Santos, another researcher at Lisbon University, there should be enough time for EU members to prepare for wastewater-based monitoring.

“Most EU countries already have their own monitoring programs in place either as a national program or as research projects. It is therefore just a complement to what most countries are already performing,” he said.

Likewise, Sinkevičius believes that there will be enough time: “The sector is used to monitoring wastewater on a regular basis for other parameters. Therefore, the deadline we set is realistic.”

Another concern raised by ECDC is the standardisation of methods across countries to ensure that wastewater surveillance data are valid and comparable at the EU level.

Santos highlighted the importance of frequent updates to ensure that member states are always making decisions based on the newest information when dealing with variants.

The “groundbreaking” recommendation should pave a way for effective collaboration between health and environmental institutions, said Santos, adding that this cooperation is currently often missing.

This disconnect worries the Commission as well.

“The main challenge is to make sure that authorities in charge of wastewater management are working together with the authorities in charge of public health,” said Sinkevičius.

[Edited by Gerardo Fortuna and Josie Le Blond]

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