COVIDETECT: Wastewater as the means of improving the response to new Covid-19 outbreaks

The COVIDETECT project has now demonstrated that wastewaters may be used to return early detection of new outbreaks of Covid-19 as well as studying the diversity in the genomes of the SARS-CoV-2 viruses circulating in a community.

The results of this research project, presented today in a session that counted on the presence of the Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for the Environment, also confirmed the potential for the genomic surveillance of wastewaters to detect for the emergence of new mutations and variants as regards syndromic/clinical surveillance.

Launched in April 2020 and financed by FEDER through the Compete 2020 program, the COVIDETECT project is under development by a consortium integrating various AdP Group companies, the Faculty of Science of the University of Lisbon and the Analysis Laboratory of Lisbon’s Higher Technical Institute.

The methodology developed for detecting and quantifying the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 virus in wastewaters underwent application in five wastewater treatment plants located in the urban centres of Lisbon, Cascais, Gaia and Guimarães, serving approximately 20% of the total national population and spanning regions with high prevalence of the disease. There was also additional monitoring of the circulation of the virus in the drainage networks leading out of the Curry Cabral Hospital in Lisbon, the Eduardo Santos Silva Hospital in Vila Nova de Gaia and the Senhora da Oliveira Hospital in Guimarães.

In total, 760 samples of wastewater were analysed between 27 April and 2 December 2020, confirming the data obtained for SARS-CoV-2 based on the untreated wastewaters in keeping with their due adjustment to the new daily cases reported in the regions hosting the wastewater treatment plants included in the study.

This extended to analysis of treated wastewaters that resulted in the detection of the present of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material, which was then confirmed as lacking any infectious capacity and hence without any potential for transmission or impact on the recipient environment.

The consortium also coordinated the genome sequencing of selected SARS-CoV-2 samples from the wastewaters collected over the study periods across different phases of the Covid-19 epidemic in Portugal, and in this way having detected mutations from variants from California and Nigeria in Lisbon in late October and in early November in Serzedelo, respectively. 

Within the scope of the project, which is due to come to a close in August, the following activities took place: the development and validation of viral RNA detection; sampling and monitoring the viral load, involving analysis of the viral load of both the five wastewater plants and the effluent systems of the three aforementioned hospitals; ecological modelling of the viral load and the population infected in the area served by the plant and the hospitals participating in the project; the characteristics of the genomes of infected individuals, both asymptomatic and symptomatic, and the study of the genetic diversity of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. 

The following phases involve the dissemination of the results and the models developed for their widespread application in other systems and the setting up of a real time warning system for notifying the healthcare and environmental authorities about the re-emergence of the virus.
The consortium responsible for the COVIDETECT project has collaborated with the European Commission within the scope of the pan-European initiative as regards recourse to wastewaters as a means of monitoring for the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in the population and having specifically contributed to the final version of the Recommendation (EU) 2021/472 from the Commission as regards a shared approach to establishing systematic surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 and its respective variants in the wastewaters of the European Union on 17 March 2021.

27 of May of 2021