Science and Technology

COVIDETECT: Project results demonstrate that wastewater can be used to respond more effectively to future pandemic outbreaks

The project results and the next stages of the project were announced last Wednesday in a public session.

The results of COVIDETECT project were made public last Wednesday, 26th May, and confirmed that it is possible to monitor SARS-CoV-2 circulation and diversity through community wastewater sequencing.

COVIDETECT was launched in April 2020 and is funded by FEDER, through Compete 2020 programme. The project is coordinated by AdP VALOR, and the consortium includes Instituto Superior Técnico, other AdP Group companies and the Faculty of Sciences, Universidade de Lisboa.

The project monitored Wastewater Treatment Plants (WWTPs) located in Lisbon, Cascais, Vila Nova de Gaia and Guimarães, serving approximately 20% of the Portuguese population. In addition, the researchers monitored the circulation of the virus in the effluent drainage networks of Curry Cabral Hospital (Lisbon), Eduardo Santos Silva Hospital (Vila Nova de Gaia), and the Senhora da Oliveira Hospital (Guimarães).

In total, 760 wastewater samples were analysed between 27th April and 2nd December 2020, confirming that the data obtained for SARS-CoV-2 from untreated wastewater were directly linked with the new daily cases reported in the regions where these WWTPs were located.

The consortium also coordinated the SARS-CoV-2 genome sequence study of selected of wastewater samples collected during the study period, at different stages of the COVID-19 epidemic in Portugal, which allowed to detect COVID-19 variants. In late October, the California variant was detected in Lisbon, and in early November, the Nigeria variant was detected in Serzedelo.

Another relevant result of the project is the conclusion that wastewater treatment will be sufficient to eliminate the virus. Despite the presence of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in some of the treated wastewater samples, it was found that there is no potential distribution of the virus in the aquatic environment.

“It was extremely important to understand whether the virus detection represented risks for the environment and human health within the urban water cycle. Our team developed a more expeditious method than the one that uses cell lines – although, subsequently, the results were also validated with cell lines – to check the virus infectivity in this type of water”, stresses Ricardo Santos, researcher at LAIST, and one of the coordinators of Técnico’s team in this project.

COVIDETECT is scheduled to be completed in August. Until then, the entities will focus on creating a real-time alert system to notify health and environmental authorities about the virus reemergence, on the dissemination of results and models developed for a more comprehensive application in other systems. An interactive dashboard will also be available with the information resulting from the project.

Methodologies for the detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater developed by LAIST

The LAIST team, led by researchers Ricardo Santos and Sílvia Monteiro, was responsible for the development and validation of methodologies for the detection and quantification of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, as well as the monitoring of more than 700 wastewater samples, including WWTP influent and effluent samples and samples of hospital effluents.

The model developed can also be applied to other viruses and used to detect other taxonomic groups including bacteria – important for antibiotic resistance – and protozoa. “This is a very robust methodology, as demonstrated by the interlaboratory exercise that we carried out in partnership with the EU reference laboratory to detect SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater and expressed in the JRC Publications Repository, says Sílvia Monteiro.

“The most rewarding thing is seeing that this tool can be used to help communities and the health authorities to fight this and other diseases / future pandemics”, highlights Ricardo Santos.

The consortium collaborated with the European Commission

The consortium was invited by the European Commission to share knowledge and to participate in some trials, in other European cities, within the scope of the pan-European Umbrella Study, thus contributing to the Commission Recommendation (EU) 2021/472 of 17 March 2021 on a common approach to establish a systematic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2 and its variants in wastewaters in the EU.

Portuguese ministers highlight the value of the project in combating the pandemic

The results of COVIDETECT were made public by the Vice-president of AdP VALOR, Nuno Brôco, in a public session that was attended by the Minister for the Environment and Climate Action, João Matos Fernandes, the Minister of Health, Marta Temido, and Inês dos Santos Costa, Secretary of State for the Environment.

The Minister of Health highlighted “one of the great lessons of this pandemic is that we have to bring science, technology and innovation closer together in order to provide the best answer to new challenges. The results of this project will be very useful to better fight this pandemic, and eventually new viruses and new health threats”.

“It is very important that science and the productive sectors go hand in hand”, said the Minister for the Environment and Climate Action. “This project shows that we are able to detect SARS-CoV-2 variants and inform the health authorities in due time, and especially to predict and locate potential future outbreaks”, he added.