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Dr Zhugen Yang: "Testing wastewater can provide early warning of infections in the community"

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  • Dr Zhugen Yang: "Testing wastewater can provide early warning of infections in the community"

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Cranfield University
Cranfield is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.
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Scientists at England’s Cranfield University are working on a new test to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for COVID-19, in the wastewater of communities infected with the virus. The university’s researchers believe that using a wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE) approach could provide an adequate and swift way to predict the potential spread of COVID-19.

We speak with Dr Zhugen Yang, Lecturer in Sensor Technology at Cranfield Water Science Institute, and head of this investigation, to learn more about the research and the advantages of testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2.

Question: Research in The Netherlands has detected SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater. Has Cranfield University detected similar findings in the wastewater in England?

Answer: We have not yet tested wastewater samples in England as our labs at the University are currently closed. However, we have already shown that our paper device is able to test nucleic acid in sewage for a proof-of-concept study.

Q: Where is Cranfield University carrying out this study? If successful, will the research be implemented in other parts of the country?

A: We have carried out the study so far in our lab at Cranfield University, in the Water Science Institute, and this could be extended to other parts of the country.

Q: Cranfield University is testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 to get an indication of the number of virus infections in the population. Do you think testing wastewater for the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 is more efficient than the traditional testing methods?

A: The advantage of testing wastewater is that it can provide early warning of infections in the community. This will significantly help governments to take proper prevention and effective intervention measures. Currently the test is designed as a rapid and cost-effective diagnostic tool for the mass population rather than individuals. These testing kits could also be used for individual diagnosis of SARS-CoV-2 with further development, as has been proved for malaria testing.

The advantage of testing wastewater is that it can provide early warning of infections in the community

Q: Cranfield University is using rapid testing kits using paper-based devices. Could you tell us a bit more about this method of testing?

A: As it is folded and unfolded, the sensor filters the nucleic acids of pathogens, which then react with preloaded reagents to reveal the presence of certain infections. The results can be seen with the naked eye, presenting as a green circle when positive. This device is cheap (costing less than £1 (US$1.25)) and will be easy to use for non-experts after further improvement. 

Q: Is Cranfield University working with other organizations or governmental bodies on this study?

A: At the moment, we have been sponsored by the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council and Royal Academy of Engineering, which is enabling us to further improve the performance of the device. We have been approached by a water company for discussion on collaboration.

As more people become infectious, a higher dose of COVID-19 may be present in sewage

Q: Do you think wastewater could be a vector for the transmission of the coronavirus?

A: Currently it’s difficult to say, but there is evidence to show that viral RNA of COVID-19 has been detected. It will also depend on the pandemic; as more people become infectious, a higher dose of COVID-19 may be present in sewage.

Q: In the study, you mention the paper device used for testing is easy to use for non-experts. Have these tests been designed for wastewater workers to use in the near-future?

A: There is clear potential and we are currently working to improve the performance of the devices further.