Windsor-Essex public health can now track COVID-19 through wastewater

Windsor-Essex public health is now part of a pilot project using waste water to track and detect outbreaks of COVID-19. Researchers say their system can detect an outbreak 7 to 10 days before community infections appear.
Executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research Mike MccKay. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Windsor-Essex public health is now part of a pilot project using waste water to track and detect outbreaks of COVID-19, and it could give the health unit early warning of infections in the community, say researchers. 

For the last two months, scientists at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor have been taking weekly samples from four wastewater treatment plants: two in the City of Windsor, and one each in the towns of Lakeshore and Amherstburg.

They've also done sampling in partnership with the City of London. 

"We know that Canada and the Province of Ontario has been quite successful ... flattening the curve," said Mike McKay, executive director of the institute. And as students go back to school and concerns over a second wave increase, McKay says that baseline will be very valuable.

At the same time, since the early months of the pandemic, his team of researchers have also been developing a way to detect the genetic signal of the novel coronavirus.

They've done that now, says McKay, which means the institute is now working directly with public health units, like Windsor-Essex, to help them interpret these genetic COVID-19 signals in the waste water — and maybe even use the data as an early warning sign of impending outbreaks. 

"We'll pick up the virus likely seven to 10 days in wastewater before we see manifestations in the community infections," says McKay.

University of Arizona outbreak detected

It's already proven possible south of the border. 

McKay points to a recent success story at the University of Arizona where feces was used to detect an outbreak — and stop the spread — of COVID-19 in one of the school's dorm's. 

"This exactly how we envisioned this method being applied," said McKay. "The ability to look at this as a sort of community swab."

A team of researchers at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor has found a way to detect the genetic signal of the novel coronavirus in wastewater. (Katerina Georgieva/CBC)

Right now, McKay and his team are limited to samples coming from wastewater treatment plants. Ideally, he says, they'd like to get closer to the source. 

"We'd like to start increasing the resolution of our sampling, so you can start now targeting residential facilities that might be at higher risk because people are living together." 

His team has asked for the same kind of access used to prevent the University of Arizona outbreak spread so that they could use wastewater as an early warning sign in residential settings or dorms. 

It might not be that useful right now, he said, with the majority of post-secondary students studying at a distance this fall, but he expects it will be in subsequent terms as students move back on campus. 

"We've had this thought that this could be a great early warning tool for use by public health agencies," said McKay.

"To actually see this panning out now, at several campuses in the United States really validates the method and I think reinforces the need for having a more coordinated provincial — or even national strategy for surveillance for the coronavirus," he said. 


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