(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Testing wastewater could give early warning of second wave of COVID-19

Several provinces have struggled to keep up with the volume of tests needed to do that

As Canada continues to struggle to keep up with the level of COVID-19 tests needed to fend off a potential second wave of the viral disease, researchers say the best early warning system for a second wave could be right beneath our feet — in the sewers.

Several other countries have taken to testing wastewater for signs of the novel coronavirus as an indication of flare-ups in their communities.

Now researchers are beginning to look at the option in Canada.

Given that some people can pass the virus on without even knowing they have it, health officials say testing large portions of the population will be key to detecting and quashing any new community spread of COVID-19.

Several provinces have struggled to keep up with the volume of tests needed to do that, particularly in Ontario and Quebec where rates of infection remain high.

But the virus isn’t only detected in the back of people’s throats. It’s also found in waste. And while not everyone will get tested for COVID-19, most everyone uses the toilet.

“This is a tool that can actually provide an early alert to our public health in regards to re-emergence of infectivity in communities,” said Mike McKay, the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor.

His research group is one of several across the country looking at whether sampling sewage could be a viable way to alert public health officials to new outbreaks.

Initially, he said researchers were excited about the possibility that measuring the amount of virus found in the pipes could provide some sense of the number of cases in a community.

But not enough is known about how much of the virus is shed in people’s waste to be able to draw many conclusions yet.

Instead, researchers hope they’ll be able to detect whether the viral load has gone up or down, allowing researchers to flag sudden spikes to public health who will be able to focus their efforts accordingly.

“If it does that, that means it’s saving lives,” said Bernadette Conant, CEO of the Canadian Water Network.

The network is in the early stages of trying to co-ordinate a pilot project in Canadian cities, including Ottawa, Windsor, Montreal and Edmonton, to develop an effective method and determine whether wastewater tests could have the public health applications they hope for.

The ultimate goal, as the technique evolves, is to use the method to root out new outbreaks in certain neighbourhoods, or even specific buildings, like long-term care homes.

That would allow public health authorities to tailor testing, lockdowns or other containment measures to that area.

“This is not a silver bullet and it’s not about replacing the basic testing and contact tracing surveillance,” Conant said. “What it does is offer the potential to fill a gap.”

The idea was tried in the Netherlands and France in the early days of the epidemic, and according to non-peer reviewed studies, both were able to detect traces of the virus in wastewater before widespread outbreaks were confirmed in those countries.

Several states in the U.S., as well as Australia and Israel, have also looked to the sewers to for signs of the virus.

It’s not a totally foreign concept in Canada either. Last year, Statistics Canada released a report on its use of wastewater samples to detect signs of increased drug use.

Accurate information about societal use of drugs, particularly from illegal sources, is difficult to get, the authors explained. So they ran a pilot project to see if sewer systems could give them a better picture.

There were limitations to what the data could tell them, but they said the advantage was the low cost, timeliness and the ability to monitor change over time at the city level — which is what researchers hope to achieve with COVID-19 tests.

Edmonton’s water utility company, Epcor, said in a statement that workers already take regular wastewater samples, so the effort and risk in gathering extra samples for testing is minimal.

As for creating a national sewage surveillance system in Canada, Conant said public health officials are beginning to show an interest but logistics, including lab capability and capacity, would still need to be worked out.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism during the pandemic? Make a donation here.

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Ashley Durance, seen here on Nov. 25, 2020 with her four-year-old daughter Hazel, recently released The Adventures of Mabel Mouse. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress)
Chilliwack cancer patient writes children’s book inspired by daughter with medical complexities

Ashley Durance released ‘The Adventures of Mabel Mouse’ the day before her daughter’s fourth birthday

LEFT: Krista Macinnis, with a red handprint across her face that symbolizes the silencing of First Nations people, displays the homework assignment that her Grade 6 daughter received on Tuesday. (Submitted photo)
RIGHT: Abbotsford School District Kevin Godden says the district takes responsibility for the harm the assignment caused.
Abbotsford school district must make amends for harmful residential school assignment: superintendent

‘The first step is to unreservedly apologize for the harm … caused to our community’: Kevin Godden

A new Sardis secondary school logo designed by a former student, Jason Roberts. (Facebook photo)
Chilliwack’s Sardis secondary unveils new logo done in Coast Salish style

The new-look Falcon is meant strengthen connections between Indigenous students and their school

Elissa McLaren broke her left elbow in the Sept. 20, 2020 collision. (Submitted)
Victims of fatal crash on Prest Road in Chilliwack asking for help leading up to Christmas

‘This accident has taken a larger toll financially, mentally and physically than originally intended’

Chilliwack school trustee Barry Neufeld (left) and former BCTF president Glen Hansman (right).
BC Court of Appeal left to walk tightrope of freedom of expression in Neufeld-Hansman case

Is defamation lawsuit aimed at stifling free expression or does the defamation hinder free speech?

Mary Cox and Jack Plant dance in their pyjamas and slippers at the morning pyjama dance during the Rhythm Reelers’ 25 Annual Rally in the Valley Square Dance Festival in Chilliwack on June 4, 2011. Sunday, Nov. 29, 2020 is Square Dancing Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of Nov. 29 to Dec. 5

Square Dancing Day, Disability Day and International Ninja Day are all coming up this week

Black Press Media and BraveFace have come together to support children facing life-threatening conditions. Net proceeds from these washable, reusable, three-layer masks go to Make-A-Wish Foundation BC & Yukon.
Put on a BraveFace: Help make children’s wishes come true

Black Press Media, BraveFace host mask fundraiser for Make-A-Wish Foundation

Kevin Bieksa during his days playing with the Vancouver Canucks. (Photo: commons.wikimedia.org)
Bieksa to guest on free Canucks Alumni ‘Hot Stove’ on Zoom app

Former NHL player has become a game analyst on Sportsnet

114 Canadians were appointed Nov. 27 to the Order of Canada. (Governor General of Canada photo)
Indigenous actor, author, elder, leaders appointed to Order of Canada

Outstanding achievement, community dedication and service recognized

A big job: Former forests minister Doug Donaldson stands before a 500-year-old Douglas fir in Saanich to announce preservation of some of B.C.’s oldest trees, July 2019. (B.C. government)
B.C. returning to ‘stand-alone’ forests, rural development ministry

Horgan says Gordon Campbell’s super-ministry doesn’t work

Peter Wilson, left, and Micah Rankin, right, formed the Special Prosecutor team that was tasked with reviewing and litigating charges stemming from the Bountiful investigation. Trevor Crawley photo.
End of Bountiful prosecution wraps up decades of legal battles

Constitutional questions had to be settled before a polygamy prosecution could move forward

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Despite rumours, Surrey RCMP say they are not issuing tickets to people if they are driving in a vehicle with others from a different household. (File photo)
COVID-19 tickets: No, RCMP aren’t checking vehicle occupancies, restaurant tables

Enforcement about education, not punishment says Surrey RCMP Cpl. Joanie Sidhu

Alexandre Bissonnette, who pleaded guilty to a mass shooting at a Quebec City mosque, arrives at the courthouse in Quebec City on February 21, 2017. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Mathieu Belanger - POOL
Court strikes down consecutive life sentences; mosque shooter has prison term cut

The decision was appealed by both the defence and the Crown

Most Read