Nova Scotia

Researchers turn to wastewater to find new ways to track COVID-19

A team of Halifax researchers wonders if a valuable way to detect COVID-19 is going down our drains.

Dalhousie study one of many trying to find methods for early detection

Graham Gagnon, the director of the Dalhousie University Centre for Water Resource Studies, says testing could create a new link between wastewater studies and public health decisions. (CBC)

A team of Halifax researchers wonders if a valuable way to detect COVID-19 is going down our drains.

Graham Gagnon and Amina Stoddart are leading a project that will use wastewater as a means to find the virus.

"As we're learning more about COVID-19, we know that some people who can be infected can be asymptomatic," said Stoddart. "Obviously, with clinical testing, we can only test so many people."

That's the motivation as they try to develop new, reliable ways to locate the virus.

The work "can potentially identify where COVID-19 is within our community," Stoddart said.

Halifax Water is working with the team, pulling samples from two wastewater treatment plants and one sewage shed a few times a week.

The researchers, who work at Dalhousie University, will focus on finding a reliable way to detect SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

If successful, they could branch out and start testing in other locations in Nova Scotia.

Amina Stoddart, an assistant professor in Dalhousie's civil and resource engineering department, says wastewater tests could help find pockets of asymptomatic cases of COVID-19. ( Daniel Abriel)

Their efforts are being mirrored across the country and internationally. The lab is connected with the Canadian Water Network and a coalition trying to measure the virus.

They've also partnered with LuminUltra, a private company in Fredericton that holds the contract to supply the reagents to detect the virus.

"We hope through the knowledge of our Canadian academic partners and our Canadian private sector partners, we'll be able to advance our methodological approaches," said Gagnon.

Mike Mckay at the University of Windsor told Quirks & Quarks that early research has shown monitoring can detect "as few as one infected person in a population of 100,000."

For Gagnon, the potential is thrilling.

"Once we have a reliable method, I would think we would want to work with [Nova Scotia Health Authority] to ask that other question of whether we should be monitoring specific areas," he said. "Having this as another tool to help guide decision-making could be really, really fantastic."

It's a dramatic shift from the reason he started studying wastewater — his original interest was protecting waters and aquatic species.

"This particular project adds a new dimension of trying to help public health trying to make sense of a really challenging situation," Gagnon said.

There's no timeline for results, but Gagnon said they're committed to the project for at least the rest of 2020.

"I think we're going to be guided by the pandemic and guided by the needs of public health," he said.

"I'd always kind of just be open to changing our methodology and changing our approaches as we learn more about this virus."

About the Author

Carolyn Ray

Videojournalist

Carolyn Ray is a videojournalist who has reported out of three provinces and two territories, and is now based in Halifax. You can reach her at Carolyn.Ray@cbc.ca

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