Testing is now underway at sites covering 22% of the population – where officials believe sewage can throw up traces of coronavirus before it’s spotted in testing.
Analysing sewage for traces of coronavirus has helped officials spot spikes in Covid-19 cases in areas where relatively few people were being tested, according to the Environmental Department.
The programme to analyze sewage for traces of coronavirus is being used to provide an early warning for local outbreaks, officials have said.
The government-led scheme, which was first announced in June, is successfully detecting fragments of genetic material from the virus in waste water, Defra said.
Data from this testing, which has been rolled out to more than 90 waste water treatment sites across the UK, is being shared with the Joint Biosecurity Centre as part of NHS Test and Trace.
The fragments of the coronavirus are passed out from people’s bodies when they use the toilet. The detection of the material, which is not infectious, can indicate when a local community is having a spike in cases.
Officials said the results of testing can give local health teams a clearer idea of infection rates by identifying where there are high numbers, particularly of asymptomatic carriers and people before they start showing symptoms.
This can help them take early action to slow the spread of the virus.
Defra said the project had already worked successfully in an area of the south west of England, where sewage sampling showed a spike in coronavirus material despite relatively few people getting tested.
The information was passed on to NHS Test and Trace and the local council who were able to alert local health professionals to the increased risk and contact people in the area to warn of the rise in cases.