Kitchener-Waterloo

How COVID-19 was detected in wastewater at 2 UW residences, and why that's significant

The University of Waterloo's COVID-19 dashboard suggests the virus has been detected at Ron Eydt Village and Village 1, despite there being no confirmed cases at the school.

COVID-19 detected at Ron Eydt Village and Village 1

The University of Waterloo's COVID-19 dashboard suggests COVID-19 has been detected at Ron Eydt Village and Village 1, despite there being no confirmed cases at the school. (Kate Bueckert/CBC)

Researchers at the University of Waterloo are taking a unique approach to COVID-19 testing.

They're collecting wastewater samples across several student residences and testing for the virus that can be detected in both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.

The school's dashboard suggests the virus has been detected at Ron Eydt Village and Village 1, despite there being no confirmed cases at the school, as of Wednesday. 

The school has communicated safety information with students and further testing is being conducted, according to its dashboard.

What this means

Mark Servos heads the pilot and is Canada's research chair in water quality protection at the university.

"We don't know if they're asymptomatic or symptomatic. We don't know if they've been visiting for five minutes. All we know is that somebody in ... that area, with collecting that water, has discharged a fragment of the virus into the water. So, that's a flag for our university team," he said.

"It's more likely that there are asymptomatic people that don't even know. And so what we want to do is inform the students so that they can take the proper action and the university can take the proper action so that they can protect people ... that they're still not gathering in large groups, all of those things, and they just keep reminding people.

"So the wastewater is more of a supportive tool that we use to help. It's something we can add to our toolbox," he added.

Wastewater samples point to where COVID-19 cases are

2 years ago
Duration 2:04
Wastewater samples from sewage are being used to determine the existence of COVID-19 in communities and could give advance warning of where a second wave is taking shape.

How it works

The pilot program at the university, which launched in the summer, works in partnership with the Region of Waterloo. It looks at wastewater at Ron Eydt Village, Village 1, Mackenzie King Village and UW Place, including Claudette Millar Hall. It also assesses samples in Cambridge, Kitchener and Waterloo.

Researchers place pieces of gauze in sewers for 24 hours to collect particles that are then tested for the virus, including different variants.

They test about five samples a day, three times a week.

COVID trends

Servos said it's too early to determine trends at the school, however, the hope is that detection decreases as vaccinations increase.

"What we want to be able to show is that, over time, all of the tests in the wastewater disappear ... So it'll make us more and more confident in our reopening down the road, that we've been able to look at these different processes on campus and different approaches and tools to be able to protect our student body," he said.

In the community, Servos said the trends have been consistent with clinical numbers.

For example, positive detection has been trending toward in Kitchener and Waterloo in the past few months as case counts have also generally declined.

The Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, which helps fund the pilot, has poured more money into the initiative, allowing it to continue until March 2022.

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