A wastewater biosensor enabling detailed COVID-19 population surveillance.

Lead Research Organisation: University of Portsmouth
Department Name: Inst of Biomedical and Biomolecular Sc

Abstract

The UK Government is basing its response to the Covid-19 pandemic on scientific evidence and detailed analysis. For example, the COVID19 National Testing Strategy emphasises the critical importance of robust population-wide surveillance programmes (pillar 4) to understand the rate of infection, and how the virus is spreading across the country. This knowledge directly informs critical decision making and pillar 4 is currently reliant on a recently initiated mass population testing programme using weekly/monthly swab testing of up to 300,000 people. This approach is not only invasive and resource intensive, but it also entirely reliant on public compliance, exceptionally expensive (> £125m per annum on public incentives alone) and measuring <0.5% of the population, offers only limited geographical resolution. In contrast, wastewater surveillance has previously been used to detect and mitigate disease outbreaks and recent research has evidenced that SARS-CoV-2 is excreted into the wastewater system, highlighting an easy to access sample source which could yield real-time geographically detailed population level information of COVID-19 prevalence. RT-PCR analysis of wastewater to detect SARS-CoV-2 is possible in the laboratory, but operating this approach regularly at scale across the UKs network of wastewater sites is exceptionally resource intensive. A simple SARS-CoV-2 wastewater monitoring device that can be used by current site personnel, or incorporated into on-site automated wastewater sampling systems, would offer a cost-effective unparalleled source of detailed data on COVID-19 prevalence. Excitingly, this could provide a robust and enduring real-time warning system of local hot spots, as well as a rich dataset from which geographically specific community-level Governmental policies can be determined, future peaks can be detected early and the effectiveness of a large-scale vaccine delivery and countermeasure programmes monitored.

Co-designed with industry partners, this grant aims to prove the concept of a SARS-CoV-2 biosensor as a wastewater monitoring device and demonstrate a simple working prototype operating on real wastewater samples. The ability to rapidly deliver a simple working prototype is supported by the high maturity of the underpinning science (the biosensor system builds on previous BBSRC/EPSRC investment) and the project's direct access to The University of Portsmouth's unique Environmental Technology Field Station (ETFS). The ETFS offers research facilities, wastewater samples and appropriate processing technology at a fully-operational wastewater-works. Industry partners are excited about this work and will be actively engaged in the project, particularly the prototype development stage. They are keen to support rapid exploitation and the envisaged pathway to UK impact as a whole, and the realisation of the full benefit, is through the deployment of ~18,000 SARS-CoV-2 monitoring devices across the UK's network of wastewater sites.

Looking to the future, the broader application of the monitoring device is enormous. Not only could it be adapted for use on wastewater systems in less-developed countries, but the biosensor system could be altered to respond to viral mutations or other emerging viral threats. Further work would allow it to be deployed to support wider environmental monitoring applications or as a simple detection/diagnostic tool.

Publications

10 25 50
 
Description Early steps have been taken to re-purpose our patented RNA array technology to support the identification of biosensors for SARS-CoV2
Exploitation Route To early to say as the grant is on-going.
Sectors Environment,Healthcare

 
Description Collaboration with Dr Thomas Howard and Prof. Neil Boonham at the University of Newcastle (2020 onwards) 
Organisation Newcastle University
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Myself and my research team bring our expertise in RNA research, and specifically applications of our patented RNA array technology.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Howards group brings expertise in developing molecular biosensors and smart materials. Prof. Boonham provides expertise in environmental biosensing approaches, including viral detection.
Impact Working together we secured a Covid-19 grant to support studies to develop a wastewater biosensor for detecting SARS-CoV2. We each bring our differing areas of expertise, within the molecular research domain, biosensing, smart materials and environmental detection approaches, to support the work proposed.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Collaboration with Nicolas Locker, Surrey University 
Organisation University of Surrey
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Research collaboration - Myself and my team brought our RNA and molecular expertise to the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution Dr Locker brings expertise in virology.
Impact Dr Locker has been a collaborator for many years, involved in the original grant developing the RNA array technology, and associated output. More recently, working together, we secured a Covid-19 grant to support studies to develop a wastewater biosensor for detecting SARS-CoV2. We each bring our differing areas of expertise, with Dr Locker specifically providing virology input to support the work proposed.
Start Year 2009
 
Description Collaboration with Prof. John Williams and Dr Fay Couceiro (University of Portsmouth) 
Organisation University of Portsmouth
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Myself and my team brought our RNA and molecular expertise to the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution Prof. Williams and Dr Couceiro bring expertise in environmental monitoring, specifically within the wastewater space.
Impact Working together we secured a Covid-19 grant to support studies to develop a wastewater biosensor for detecting SARS-CoV2. We each bring our differing areas of expertise, either within the molecular research domain or the wastewater space, to support the work proposed.
Start Year 2020
 
Description Southern Water 
Organisation Southern Water
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution Myself and my team brought our RNA and molecular expertise to the collaboration.
Collaborator Contribution Southern Water brought expertise in wastewater management and support with site access.
Impact Working together, we secured a Covid19 grant to support research into developing a biosensor for detection of SARS-CoV2 in wastewater.
Start Year 2020