Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), responsible for the ongoing coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, is frequently shed in faeces during infection, and viral RNA has recently been detected in sewage in some countries. We have investigated the presence of SARS-CoV-2 RNA in wastewater samples from South-East England between 14th January and 12th May 2020. A novel nested RT-PCR approach targeting five different regions of the viral genome improved the sensitivity of RT-qPCR assays and generated nucleotide sequences at sites with known sequence polymorphisms among SARS-CoV-2 isolates. We were able to detect co-circulating virus variants, some specifically prevalent in England, and to identify changes in viral RNA sequences with time consistent with the recently reported increasing global dominance of Spike protein G614 pandemic variant. Low levels of viral RNA were detected in a sample from 11th February, 3 days before the first case was reported in the sewage plant catchment area. SARS-CoV-2 RNA concentration increased in March and April, and a sharp reduction was observed in May, showing the effects of lockdown measures. We conclude that viral RNA sequences found in sewage closely resemble those from clinical samples and that environmental surveillance can be used to monitor SARS-CoV-2 transmission, tracing virus variants and detecting virus importations.
Keywords: COVID-19; SARS-CoV-2 RNA; alter surveillance system; next-generation sequencing; variant G614; virus evolution; wastewater.