Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2024 laureate curbs COVID-19 spread through wastewater surveillance

Prof Gertjan Medema has been awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize (LKYWP) 2024 for his contributions in wastewater-based epidemiology (WBE). The principal microbiologist at the KWR Water Research Institute in the Netherlands have pioneered the use of wastewater surveillance to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The 62-year-old is the 10th recipient to receive the LKYWP, which honours outstanding contributions by individuals or organisations towards solving the world’s water challenges by developing or applying technologies, policies or programmes which benefit humanity.

PUB chief executive Ong Tze-Ch’in congratulates Prof Medema (Image: PUB)

He will receive the prize — an award certificate, a gold medallion and a cash prize of S$300,000 sponsored by the Temasek Foundation — from president of Singapore Tharman Shanmugaratnam, at an award ceremony on 18 Jun 2024. He will deliver a keynote lecture on 19 Jun 2024, during the Singapore International Water Week (SIWW) 2024.

Prof Medema and his team began collecting wastewater samples across the Netherlands to test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus, recognising the need for early detection and monitoring in the community. The virus was detected in the wastewater of several cities before cases were reported through clinical testing.

Through his work in the application of WBE for virus detection in wastewater during COVID-19, wastewater surveillance has been established as a vital tool in safeguarding public health. His first publication had over 1,400 citations and more than 34,000 views from 2020-2023.

Wastewater has been tested for SARS-CoV-2 in at least 72 countries at over 4,000 reported sites, with Prof Medema himself connected to about 30% of these programmes directly.

According to Prof Medema, wastewater surveillance is a rapid, non-invasive and unbiased metric to monitor an outbreak across a population. “With wastewater monitoring, we are given early warnings of virus emergence in the community, and we can observe the trends of the virus transmission in the community,” he said.

In the post-pandemic period, many countries are adopting this surveillance infrastructure to monitor additional infectious diseases, he added. The professor advises the World Health Organization (WHO) in evaluating scientific evidence and developing international guidelines for wastewater surveillance. He serves as an advisor for the European Commission on drinking water directives and water reuse guidelines.

Singapore was one of the countries that practised wastewater monitoring. In 2020, National Environment Agency (NEA) Environmental Health Institute (EHI), Singapore’s National Water Agency PUB, and others explored wastewater surveillance as an epidemiological tool and early warning system for outbreaks. Today, wastewater sampling network covers more than 500 sites, with wastewater surveillance applied to monitor Zika transmission in Singapore.

Prof Medema and his team plans to extend his research to detect illicit drug and chronic diseases in wastewater. In the Netherlands, the National Institute of Public Health is looking at its use to monitor virus such as polio, measles and influenza.

“Wastewater surveillance is a renewal of the link between water and public health,” he said. “Not as a transmission route, but as an information source, and the bonds between the two sectors are crucial for further developing this system.”

From left: Ryan Yuen, SIWW managing director; Ong Tze-Ch’in, chief executive, PUB; Prof Gertjan Medema, LKYWP 2024 laureate; Dr Pang Chee Meng, director, water quality department, PUB (Image: PUB)