UCD scientists receive funding to develop Covid-19 early warning system

Research project is one of 11 to share a total of €1.4m in State’s response to pandemic

Scientists in University College Dublin are to evaluate the extent to which Covid-19 is ending up in sewage with a view to developing an early warning system for new waves of infection.

Their research project has received Government funding along with 10 other projects with a view to enhancing the State’s response to the pandemic.

Led by Prof Wim G Meijer the UCD team will examine the extent of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage and bodies of water such as wastewater treatment plants.

“This will provide insight into the prevalence of the virus in the community, and serve as an early warning system for a new wave of infection,” he explained.


The project also aims to work out what happens to the virus in nearby rivers, streams and sea, “including the waters where we swim”.

“We know faeces from people infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus can contain genetic material (RNA) from the virus, and that it is possible to detect that viral RNA in sewage,” he added.

Faecal contamination

The research will benefit from the expertise of an existing project at UCD called Acclimatize, which determines the levels and origins of faecal contamination in Dublin Bay.

Research projects to enable remote blood-pressure monitoring in pregnancy; to develop quicker diagnostic tests for Covid-19 and to enhance tests to detect antibodies where people have recovered from Coronavrius are to also to benefit from funding totalling €1.4 million announced by Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation Heather Humphreys.

UCC researchers at the INFANT Centre in Cork University Maternity Hospital, led by Prof Frédéric Adam and Dr Fergus McCarthy, will carry out a study using remote, connected technology to allow women monitor their blood pressure without the need to attend hospital.

The project will potentially lead to the connected technology being used for maternity units across Ireland to safely monitor blood pressure in pregnancy, while reducing risk of Covid infection.

A project led by Prof Sean Doyle at Maynooth University will develop two new tests for antibodies against SARS-CoV-2. "The project will help to identify who has been exposed to the virus and who may have developed immunity to Covid-19," he said.

The tests will also help to find people with high levels of antibodies who can donate them to protect others. The project is in collaboration with the Irish Blood Transfusion Service and National Virus Reference Laboratory in UCD.


A team of scientists from Waterford Institute of Technology's Pharmaceutical and Molecular Biotechnology Research Centre and Eco-Innovation Research Centre have teamed up with University Hospital Waterford and BioEnz Technologies to improve the speed of Covid-19 testing.

“The most reliable Covid-19 tests use a technique called polymerase chain reaction or PCR,” explained project lead Dr Lee Coffey. “The virus is cracked open and the genetic material or RNA is extracted. This is then copied over and over using PCR until it can be detected. However the PCR step is slow and can take over two hours.”

They aim to bring test time down to under 30 minutes. “We also plan to validate the method on a wider range of equipment, thereby increasing the number of labs capable of testing for Covid-19,” he added.

Prof Andrew Parnell will lead a team at Maynooth University's Hamilton Institute to generate computational tools to help Ireland predict health-related and economic consequences of relaxing Covid-19 measures.

Computer models developed in this project will forecast the likelihood of spatial spread of the disease as travel routes re-open. “It will forecast the impact of testing for the virus at borders and of relaxing interventions of different types at home and abroad. It will also forecast economic recovery by mapping financial indicators from multiple countries. This will support a faster, safer recovery to normality,” he said.


I-Form, the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Centre for Advanced Manufacturing at UCD, has secured €126,000 in funding . Within its Covid-19 rapid response digital manufacturing and innovation hub, it will rapidly design, manufacture and deliver urgently-needed PPE for frontline medical staff in hospitals and other healthcare settings.

Funding is under the rapid response research, development and innovation programme established by SFI; Enterprise Ireland, IDA Ireland, the Health Research Board and Irish Research Council. The announcement builds on the previous investment of €3.5million across 26 projects in universities and institutes of technology.

SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson said the projects exemplified the high international standards, agility and responsive nature of the Irish research community.

“This programme has been delivered by a high level of interagency and higher education institutional collaboration. We are stronger when we work together, and we will continue to collaborate with our colleagues to share the latest knowledge, developments and innovations, and to support ideas that will generate solutions to the many challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Other projects in TU Dublin; NUI Galway, the University of Limerick and Trinity College Dublin have also received funding.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times