As the world continues to grapple with the pandemic caused by COVID-19, researchers from around the world are trying to determine new ways for identifying the presence of the virus in the community without relying solely on testing.
A team from Canada are beginning to look into finding an early warning system for viral outbreaks by screening COVID in wastewater from various communities. Since not all individuals can be tested for the virus, finding the presence of COVID in wastewater sewage is a great alternative because of the ease in testing human waste. This is significant because it can be a general predictor of viral spread since testing has usually been limited to symptomatic carriers.
Ontario and Quebec have struggled to keep up with the volume of tests needed particularly where rates of infection remain high.
Mike McKay, the executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research at the University of Windsor, asserts that investigating COVID in wastewater is a useful method to inform authorities of re-emergence of viral infectivity in communities.
His team is just one of several across Canada trying to determine whether sampling COVID in wastewater could be a viable way to alert public health officials to new outbreaks.
Although the idea of measuring the amount of COVID in wastewater to identify community spread appears promising, there are still a lot of unknowns about the virus and how much of it is shed in waste to draw a definitive conclusion on its viability.
What the researchers hope to achieve is to at least determine whether viral loads have increased or decreased, giving public health officials a method for focusing 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 staging a pilot project in several Canadian cities such as Ottawa, Windsor, Montreal and Edmonton, to test the validity of wastewater tests that could greatly support public health programmes.
Ultimately, their goal is to find an effective methodology that can root out new outbreaks in certain neighbourhoods, or even specific locations, like long-term care homes.
This would provide public health authorities a powerful tool to tailor testing, lockdowns or other containment measures in a specific area and implement more targeted testing for confirmation.
Conant stresses that screening for COVID in wastewater is not a silver bullet that would replace basic testing and contact tracing surveillance, but rather offers a potential way to fill a gap.
Other countries like Netherlands and France have tried similar measures in the early days of the pandemic and were able to detect traces of the virus in wastewater before outbreaks occurred, but more studies need to be done. Currently, several states in the U.S., as well as Australia and Israel, have begun to look at their sewers to for signs of the virus.
Conant said that public health officials are beginning to show an interest in creating a national sewage surveillance system in Canada, but logistics, including lab capability and capacity, would still need to be worked out.
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