LONDON (Reuters) – Traces of COVID-19 can be successfully detected in sewage, helping to give health officials an early warning of local outbreaks of the virus, the British government said on Friday.
A project, originally launched in June, has now proved that fragments of genetic material from the virus can be detected in waste water, indicating if a local community or institution is experiencing a spike in cases.
The government said this would allow health officials to identify large outbreaks especially where there were carriers not displaying any symptoms and to encourage people to get tested or take precautions.
“This is a significant step forward in giving us a clearer idea of infection rates both nationally and locally, particularly in areas where there may be large numbers of people who aren’t showing any symptoms and therefore aren’t seeking tests,” Environment Secretary George Eustice said.
The sewage-testing project has been working successfully in southwest England and has now been extended to 90 wastewater sites covering 22% of England, the government said, adding it aimed to expand it in future.
Reporting by Michael Holden; editing by Stephen Addison
Ongoing coronavirus vaccine trials cannot prove a jab could save lives, one expert has stressed.
An effective immunisation programme has long been hailed as a route back to life as we knew it.
Hopes were raised in July when scientists from the University of Oxford found a vaccine candidate induced “strong antibody and T-cell immune responses up to day 56 of the ongoing trial”.
Antibodies and T-cells make up part of the immune system, helping to prevent an infection from taking hold.
Russia’s controversial vaccine candidate also brought about an immune response within 21 days, however, some experts later called the results “highly unlikely”.
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Writing in The BMJ, the journal’s associate editor Dr Peter Doshi stressed vaccine trials are not set up to show a jab reduces the risk of hospitalisation, intensive care admission or death.
Another expert called Dr Doshi’s comments “questionable”, but added “a number of the facts are correct”.
Dr Peter Hotez from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston has said: “Ideally, you want an antiviral vaccine to do two things.
“First, reduce the likelihood you will get severely ill and go to hospital, and two, prevent infection and therefore interrupt disease transmission.”
While Dr Doshi agrees, he has argued “current [coronavirus] trials are not actually set up to prove either”.
Several coronavirus jab candidates are in phase 3 of clinical development. At an advanced stage, significant results mean the vaccine may be considered for approval by the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) or the European Medicines Agency.
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“None of the trials currently underway are designed to detect a reduction in any serious outcome such as hospitalisations, intensive care use or deaths,” wrote Dr Doshi.
“Nor are the vaccines being studied to determine whether they can interrupt transmission of the virus.”
This echoes concerns voiced after the Oxford scientists released their vaccine results.
The research was hailed as “promising”, “encouraging” and “extremely positive”, however, some also pointed out an immune response may not translate to protection against complications when the coronavirus is encountered outside of a laboratory.
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Not all clinical trials have released details on the participants they are analysing.
Dr Doshi claims those we know of are evaluating mild coronavirus cases.
Honing in on the pharmaceutical giant Moderna, Dr Doshi noted how the firm’s executives have listed the rate of hospitalisation as a “key secondary endpoint” of its coronavirus vaccine trial.
Dr Tal Zaks, Moderna’s chief medical officer, later told The BMJ the trial “lacks adequate statistical power to assess that endpoint”.
A lack of statistical power typically means the number of participants is too small or the trial’s duration too short to accurately gauge whether a jab influences a particular outcome.
Early research suggests four out of five coronavirus cases