COVID ‘surveillance system’ trialled to track transmission in hospitals

A team of researchers from the University of Manchester used a ‘proof of concept system’ to track COVID-19 infection ‘hotspots’ in hospitals.

The University said its team combined data on the ‘movement and interaction of staff and patients’ with genomic sequencing of the virus. This was used to help improve patient pathways, staff movement and ‘reduce risk’.

After identifying virus ‘hotspots’ within five North West hospitals, researchers collaborated with staff and hospital executives over three months in 2020 to apply ‘genome sequencing’ to ‘throat and nasal swabs from 173 healthcare workers and patients’.

Manchester scientists were then able to use the virus’ ‘natural genetic changes’ to see how closely related the samples were – to ultimately discover if they shared a ‘common, nearby source of infection’.

To account for the possibility that people could be infected by the same variant by chance, rather than a cluster, the team expanded the study to cover people over 30 hospital sites

It’s hoped the work can help inform infection control by using the sequencing, alongside the staff and patient movement data, to identify ‘clusters’ of infection – potentially in as little as 48 hours.

With the potential to cut the timeframe down to two days, researchers now hope that their approach could be ‘scaled up at pace’ for wider use.

Dr Jamie Ellingford, from the University of Manchester, said: “The methods applied in this study to completely characterise what the virus looks like in each sample goes above and beyond routine testing strategies.

“And that can enable identification of areas of hospitals where outbreaks are occurring and help alert infection control teams.

“It is extremely important to understand the effectiveness of infection control methods if we are to reduce and prevent SARS-CoV-2 transmission in hospital.

“While vaccines may reduce risk to individuals in hospital, the risk of infection will still exist and infection control is strongly needed to ensure patient and staff safety.”

Professor Graeme Black went onto explain how the information could be useful to hospital staff at more of an administrative level. He said:  “With this information hospital managers can, for example, evaluate existing infection control practices and easily check which ones are working most effectively. The use of PPE could also be adapted according to where a cluster might be.

“But we also suggest these data support the widespread adoption of screening strategies for healthcare workers who may be presymptomatic or asymptomatic shedders of SARS-CoV-2 who are important contributors to SARSCoV-2 outbreaks.”