Midlothian scientists part of coronavirus early warning system team

Midlothian scientists are part of a team developing a coronavirus early warning system that could prevent future lockdowns by combining data on vaccine uptake with wastewater testing.

Monday, 17th May 2021, 6:00 am
Stock photo by John Devlin

The project will better forecast the Covid-19 pandemic’s trajectory, allowing experts to identify potential hotspots early, predict stresses on hospitals and ICUs, and create more focused access to vaccines.

The new project is a partnership between the Universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Stirling, Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) and Scottish Water.

It is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) as part of UK Research and Innovation’s rapid response to Covid-19.

The wastewater monitoring programme run by SEPA and Scottish Water identifies when genetic material from the virus is present in wastewater. While these ‘genetic fragments’ present no known risk of infecting people with Covid-19, it is possible to link these results to specific areas and highlight where infections are increasing or decreasing.

The University of Edinburgh team from Roslin Institute will use this data to adapt their existing models of Covid-19 spread and improve short and medium term forecasts. The updated models could then be used to evaluate different strategies to control Covid-19 outbreaks without the need for further lockdowns.

Professor Rowland Kao, Chair of Veterinary Epidemiology and Data Science at University of Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute, said: “While we can all hope for eradication of COVID-19 this summer, a more realistic possibility is that we find ways of dealing with regular localised outbreaks. This partnership aims to identify strategies to show where these are, by rapidly picking up outbreaks and introducing local control measures such as surge testing and intensive contact tracing.”

“A key to this is to understand how the numbers of people being vaccinated may vary geographically, as any local clusters with larger numbers of unprotected individuals could drive local outbreaks. In a winter where resources will also be strained by flu and other seasonal infections, controlling those outbreaks, if they occur, could be crucial to avoiding further lockdowns.”

Experts say long-term forecasts will be possible as more data becomes available on vaccine-induced and natural immunity, loss of immunity and areas where vaccine uptake has been low.

David Pirie, SEPA Executive Director, said: “SEPA was among the first European agencies to begin work, with the help of key partners, to pinpoint Covid-19 RNA in local waste water samples in May 2020.

“The recent announcement from Scottish Government of additional funding means this work has an extension until March 2022. Our laboratory near Eurocentral will continue analysing around 200 samples a week, collected by Scottish Water from waste water treatment works across the country, playing a significant role in Scotland’s recovery from Covid-19.

"We’re proud that our science expertise is helping public health partners make key decisions to support community testing and we’ll continue to work closely with health specialists and academic partners.”​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​