A team of researchers from the University of Victoria has partnered with a local technology firm in an effort to develop a wastewater monitoring system that could help track possible COVID-19 outbreaks.
The developed system would monitor the sewage of a community and provide information to public health authorities, who could then detect and track potential areas at risk of the virus.
According to the team’s researchers, “genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in the stools of infected people.” They suggest that because of this, monitoring wastewater could be a faster way to collect data about a region’s infection levels as opposed to individual testing.
In a press release from the University of Victoria, it also hypothesizes that signs of the virus may show up in wastewater before people are symptomatic, leading to faster community response.
“Having this predictive tool will be a real game-changer, both in terms of responding to a second wave of COVID-19, as well as to other pathogen outbreaks over the longer term,” said Heather Buckley, a civil engineering researcher working on the project.
“Victoria is currently at a near-zero point with COVID-19, so any data we can collect now provides us with a baseline against which we can compare when the virus returns.”
Buckley, along with the chair of UVic’s Biomedical Engineering program, Stephanie Willerth, and the head of the Public Health and Environmental Engineering lab, Caetano Dorea, will be conducting the research for the project.
According to UVic, the trio will analyze samples, run tests and report findings to public health authorities. They will be working in conjunction with Pani Energy Inc. to help carry out the project.
The team outlines that it hopes wastewater monitoring can become an important source of data to help health officials make informed decisions in regards to COVID-19 and future pandemics.
“For centuries, people have been tested individually for infectious diseases. Being able to test their collective waste to provide a supplemental data source for disease surveillance, is an emerging field with considerable potential,” says Devesh Bharadwaj, chief executive officer of Pani Energy.
“This is a major shift in how we approach health care, make health care decisions and advance health research,” he adds.
In addition to the COVID-19 monitoring, Buckley says the project has broader applications.
“A wide range of pathogens can be detected in wastewater and the use of the group’s network to monitor for outbreaks in parallel with clinical detection will provide a powerful and cost-effective tool to assist public health agencies,” she states in a press release.
The Victoria-based project is being funded through a grant with the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.