Microbiologist Gertjan Medema awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2024

Groundbreaking SARS-CoV-2 sewage research in 2020 cornerstone of global public health surveillance

Principal scientist Gertjan Medema has been awarded the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2024 for his groundbreaking research and significant contributions in the field of sewage epidemiology for virus detection in wastewater during the COVID-19 pandemic. On 18 June 2024, during the Singapore International Water Week, Medema will receive the prize from President Tharman Shanmugaratnam of the Republic of Singapore. The prize includes a cash award of S$300,000, a certificate, and a gold medal. 

“It is a great honour and privilege to receive the prestigious Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize,” says Gertjan Medema. “This award signifies recognition for the innovative use of wastewater as a source of data for trends in COVID-19 circulation in our cities and small communities. I also see it as recognition for the hard work of many people in the water sector worldwide, who collect COVID-19 data from wastewater to help our society respond to the pandemic. It strengthens the relationships between the water and health sectors. In the current post-pandemic world, sewage monitoring is now firmly established as a tool for public health surveillance for an increasing number of diseases.” 

Image 1. Ong Tze-Ch’in, Chief Executive of PUB, Singapore’s water agency, congratulates the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2024 Laureate Gertjan Medema. 

Groundbreaking Research

With the emergence of COVID-19 in early 2020, Gertjan Medema and his colleagues recognized the need for early detection and monitoring, and began collecting sewage samples at nine locations in the Netherlands to test for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The results were promising as traces of the virus were detected in the sewage of several cities before they were officially reported.  

Medema’s work has been groundbreaking in establishing sewage epidemiology as a tool for public health surveillance during the pandemic. The impact of his work was evident from his first scientific publication (with over 1,400 citations and 34,000 downloads between 2020 and 2023). Sewage surveillance has since been globally recognized as a powerful tool for early detection of diseases like SARS-CoV-2, even before cases are reported via clinical tests. This, in turn, provides valuable insights into the prevalence of the virus in a community, and a proven cost-effective and non-invasive method for monitoring disease spread. 

Global Scientific Community

Currently, there are over 4,000 locations in 72 countries, including Singapore, practicing sewage surveillance of SARS-CoV-2, with Gertjan Medema directly involved in about 30% of these programs. In addition to his active engagement in international collaborations and sharing of expertise and findings with the global scientific community, Medema has made significant contributions to the development of international guidelines and best practices for sewage surveillance. 

About the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 

The presentation of the Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize is the highlight of the Singapore International Water Week. Launched in 2008, the Singapore government awards this prize to individuals or organizations for outstanding contributions to solving global water problems through the development or application of innovative technologies, or the implementation of policies and programs that benefit humanity. The prize is named after Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. 

Image 2. (From Left) Mr Ryan Yuen, Managing Director of Singapore International Water Week; Mr Ong Tze-Ch’in, Chief Executive, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency; Gertjan Medema, Principal Microbiologist of the KWR Water Research Institute & Lee Kuan Yew Water Prize 2024 Laureate; Dr Pang Chee Meng, Director, Water Quality Department, PUB, Singapore’s National Water Agency.