COVID-19, Sewage & Claims

1 July 2020
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Insights from our Managing Director, Dr Greg French on the links between COVID-19, sewage, and how this could affect property claims moving forward.

We are now over 3 months into the COVID-19 pandemic in the UK. Understanding the SARS-CoV2 virus, the cause of the illness COVID-19, and managing the associated risks has been the focus of the UK Government and scientific bodies worldwide. While there has been continued debate over the implementation of various control and containment methods across UK infrastructure, recent research has highlighted a completely overlooked aspect of everyones lives – sewage.

Studies have shown that SARS-CoV2 viral RNA fragments can be detected in the faecal matter of coronavirus patients. This has led to research being undertaken on sewage in a number of European countries, chiefly to help understand two things: how prevalent the virus is at a local level, and how long the virus has been present amongst the population. (See BBC article here)

The Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (Sepa) have been carrying out research in the UK; testing samples at sewage treatment works within each of Scotland’s 14 NHS health board areas. It is believed establishing the number of SARS-CoV-2 fragments present in the RNA of a given sewage sample could give broader clues to the pervasiveness of COVID-19 within the local area. It is hoped this sort of testing could also help predict and monitor any second wave of the virus.

Retrospective testing of sewage samples from 2019 in both Italy and Spain have shown positive results for traces of SARS-CoV-2 from well before the virus officially ‘arrived’ in Europe. Though this is just preliminary research, and the validity of the results is yet to be proven, testing of sewage can help to provide insights into the timeline of the incidence and transmission of COVID-19.

It is important to note that research into COVID-19 is still ongoing and reactive, and there are a multitude of studies looking at the risk of varying methods of transmission, and the virus’s ability to survive on surfaces. For example, research on the length of time the virus can survive on surfaces has brought about results ranging from 2 hours to 9 days.

So what do SARS-CoV2 and sewage have to do with insurance claims? Well, anyone who has ever been involved in a property insurance claim following a flood or an escape of water involving sewage will know that even at a time without elevated public health risk awareness, occupants of commercial and residential properties often raise concerns regarding the potentially bio-hazardous nature of the sewage contamination.

Obviously during our ongoing public health crisis, and the myriad of conflicting information available on the issue of SARS-Cov2 in the environment there is now a breeding ground for panic and uncertainty especially following water damage involving sewage. These fears are already manifesting themselves in they way insurance claimants are behaving. Not only are claimants insisting that their properties are more damaged by the presence of the SARS-CoV2 virus in the water but are also demanding greater levels of strip-out, decontamination, drying and sanitization along with testing evidence that the virus has been removed from the environment.

In scientific and hygiene terms the presence of the SARS-CoV2 virus in sewage does not make dealing the aftermath of a flood or escape of water containing sewage now any different to how it was done at the start of 2020. What was done before the COVID-19 pandemic to deal with harmful pathogens such as E-Coli, Salmonella and Streptococcus present in sewage contamination will be equally effective at dealing with SARS-CoV2. The same amount of strip-out will be required, the same drying techniques can be used and the same cleaning chemicals will work. However, what is different now is the need for those involved in the claims process to be able to understand claimants understandably heightened concerns, manage their ‘fear-fuelled’ expectations and offer them the necessary reassurance that the perceived contamination problem has been dealt with efficiently and effectively.

Following on from our successful voluntary work on testing front-line NHS staff as part of the COVID-19 Volunteer Testing Network, the laboratory team at Davis French & Associates can now offer environmental testing for the SARS-CoV2 virus. Using the very latest RNA extraction, q-PCR amplification and 3rd Generation DNA sequencing technology, we have already undertaken testing in both commercial and residential properties, to provide reassurance following both EOWs and floods regarding the presence of COVID-19 on hard surfaces.

For more information, please contact us on 0800 876 6626, and one of our team of environmental scientists will be happy to provide any advice as required.

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