Ottawa wastewater researchers monitoring omicron variant
Quick sharing of genomic sequence for new variant will lead to more detailed picture soon
The scientists watching Ottawa's wastewater for COVID-19 say the new variant hasn't escaped their testing and they're starting to collect data about how prevalent it may be in the community.
Throughout the pandemic, Ottawa researchers have been testing the city's wastewater for traces of genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the respiratory illness. Many of those infected shed the virus through their feces, even if they don't have symptoms, according to researchers.
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Tyson Graber, an associate research scientist at CHEO, eastern Ontario's children's hospital, and co-lead investigator on the project, said tracking this new variant can happen faster thanks to South African scientists having already shared omicron's genomic sequence.
"Already, we have three different tests in the pipeline," Graber said.
While those tests — developed alongside the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg and the University of Waterloo — may take weeks to yield results, having the genomic data has allowed researchers to confirm they aren't missing a spike in undetected cases.
"We know that our existing test is still able to capture the omicron variant," Graber said.
Based on that and the overall presence of COVID-19 in the community, Graber said right now omicron is not prevalent in Ottawa.
Variant virulence unknown
Dr. Gerald Evans, an infectious diseases specialist at Queen's University, said it's too early to say whether omicron is more deadly or spreads more easily than other variants.
Evans said some of the concerns are related to the number of mutations in the strain and the fact its become dominant in a South African province.
"[Omicron] does have a capability of transmitting in the setting of delta, which causes us to speculate, is it more competitive than delta? But we don't know that yet," Evans said in an interview with CBC Ottawa's Adrian Harewood.
"We're going to know more in the ensuing weeks, as we actually track how widespread this has become."
He said travel restrictions are likely ineffective since the variant had likely been circulating for months, likening it to closing the barn door after a horse has run off.
With less than 25 per cent of South Africans fully vaccinated against COVID-19, it's hard to say anything at the moment about how good existing vaccines are at fighting omicron, said Dr. Paul Roumeliotis, medical officer of health for the Eastern Ontario Health Unit.
The best practice for now is to get vaccinated if you haven't, Roumeliotis said, and keep observing COVID-19 protocols like wearing masks and staying physically distanced.
"We're still delta-focused," Roumeliotis said. "Let's keep our eye on the prize, and the prize is really … to vaccinate as many people as we can."
With files from Trevor Pritchard