Levels of Covid-19 in wastewater to be monitored at two Offaly sites

A national programme to monitor the levels of Covid-19 in wastewater is currently getting underway, with sampling to be carried out at 68 locations, including two in Offaly.

Levels of the virus in wastewater are due to be assessed in Birr and Tullamore as part of the national SARS-CoV-2 (Covid-19) Wastewater Surveillance Programme.

The new programme is being described as an important element of the work to monitor the prevalence of Covid-19 in Ireland. It's designed to act as an "early warning system" for possible future waves of infection in communities across the country.

The initiative was developed with input from a variety of organisations, including the Health Protection Surveillance Centre (HPSC), HSE, HIU, the National Virus Reference Laboratory (NVRL), UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science, and Irish Water.

Professor Wim Meijer of the UCD School of Biomolecular and Biomedical Science said a pilot study which involved three wastewater treatment plants showed "a very close correlation between the presence of the SARS-CoV-2 genetic material and the daily number of new Covid-19 cases."

This demonstrated "the usefulness of wastewater surveillance as a SARS-CoV-2 early warning system," Professor Meijer stated.

Dr John Cuddihy, Director of HPSC added: "Monitoring wastewater for evidence of SARS-CoV-2 is an internationally recognised tool in many Governments' efforts to assess the rate of infection across the population, both as a whole and within individual communities.

"Analysis of SARS-CoV-2 genetic material in wastewater captures both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

"As such, it helps evaluate how effective specific public health measures are, and can be an important early warning sign of increasing SARS-CoV-2 activity in the community. It can also help inform those locations in which increased and enhanced SARS-CoV-2 testing and preventative measures might be of benefit," he said.

The areas of the Midlands which were chosen for the wastewater sampling include the two in Offaly (Birr and Tullamore), two in Laois (Portarlington and Portlaoise) and two in Westmeath (Athlone and Mullingar).

The findings of the wastewater surveillance programme will be communicated to the HSE's public health departments, the Irish Epidemiological Modelling Advisory Group (IEMAG), and the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET).

They are due to help "inform testing strategy and the initiation of preventive public health measures."

The results are also expected to be posted on the HPSC's website "at regular intervals" when they are available.

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