Testing of sewage for signs of coronavirus as part of efforts to get a “head start” on where new outbreaks will occur has been taking place at sites across England.
The Environment Department (Defra) said sampling waste water for fragments of the virus was being trialled at 44 sewage treatment works across England.
The World Health Organisation has said there is currently no evidence that coronavirus has been transmitted through sewerage systems.
But tests are able to detect the genetic residues of Sars-Cov-2, the virus that causes Covid-19, in waste water. Those infected are thought to shed the virus in their faeces.
These genetic residues could be used to detect the presence of the virus in the population, including among those who do not have symptoms or before they develop them.
Scientists believe nationwide monitoring of sewerage systems could be a good way to identify future disease hotspots.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We are working closely with researchers, water companies and devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to monitor for fragments of coronavirus genetic material in waste water.
“The aim of this new research is to give us a head start on where new outbreaks are likely to occur.
“Sampling has started across the country to further test the effectiveness of this new science.
“Research remains at an early stage and we are still refining our methods.”
Data gathered by the testing is being used to refine the approach and feed into the Covid-19 Alert System created by the Joint Biosecurity Centre (JBC), officials said.
The Government and Devolved Administration partners are working with academics, UK Research and Innovation, the Natural Environment Research Council and water companies in developing and testing the approach.