The Welsh Government is expanding its wastewater Covid testing programme across Wales.

The project, led by Bangor University and aiming to track the presence of coronavirus in the community, will now cover all local authority areas and health boards at 48 sites across Wales.

The sites now have automated monitoring equipment installed to provide wastewater samples for testing.

“The wastewater data has helped us to understand how the pandemic has changed and allowed us to follow the Omicron wave though our communities," Health Minister Eluned Morgan said.

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“With the help of the scientists and water companies in Wales, we have increased the monitoring sites from 19 to 48 and introduced automatic sampling equipment - providing even more detailed insights compared with the methods we originally adopted.”

As traces of Covid-19 are present in the faeces of those infected, testing sewage can provide some information on the levels and variants of coronavirus in the population.

The process was initially developed by scientists from Bangor University, who have been working in partnership with the Welsh Government, Cardiff University, Dŵr Cymru and Hafren Dyfrdwy.

This work, which the government says was key to the early detection of the Omicron variant in Wales, has been replicated in monitoring programmes being undertaken across the UK.

Rob Orford, Chief Scientific Adviser for Health, said: “Wastewater monitoring has the potential to be representative of the true levels of COVID-19 in our communities, as it is less affected by changes to community testing policy and whether or not people get tested.

“We are keen to continue to explore how wastewater can play an important part of our future testing strategy as we begin to move from pandemic to endemic.

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"Wastewater also has some exciting potential beyond COVID-19, and could be used to monitor the levels of many other viruses like influenza and anti-microbial resistance.”

The testing of sewage water has been previously been used to monitor the presence of poliovirus in countries including Russia, Cuba and Israel.

Similar Covid wastewater testing programmes are in place across the UK, with Scotland's extended until March 2022.

The United States this week announced its own sewage surveillance system through the Centre for Disease Control.

“COVID-19 has been a huge learning curve for virology, and our wastewater testing has been able to identify new variants of the virus in almost real-time, so we welcome its expansion across Wales," said Professor David Jones from Bangor University’s School of Natural Sciences, who co-leads the development of the testing technology.

"We know that the faster the data can be produced, the better informed public health officials can be in making important decisions about the measures needed.”

Wastewater monitoring is considered a helpful tool by scientists, though legal and ethical concerns have been raised by some, largely relating to the handling of samples that contain genetic material, as well as how the data would be used - for example, if states were to impose lockdown restrictions on a certain area based on Covid levels in their sewage.

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