Hamilton researcher tests wastewater to detect COVID-19 and other virus outbreaks

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Published April 1, 2022 at 5:19 pm

Hamilton researcher tests wastewater to detect COVID-19 and other virus outbreaks
A Hamilton researcher is using a much less invasive method to detect an outbreak of COVID-19 and other viruses – the surveillance of wastewater. 

As COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, and the reliance on individual testing and contract tracing wanes, community outbreaks will likely become increasingly difficult to detect and track. One Hamilton researcher is using a much less invasive method – the surveillance of wastewater.

David Bulir is leading a team that monitors wastewater in 13 different communities. The McMaster University professor and affiliated researcher with St. Joseph’s Healthcare Hamilton says samples from the community and wastewater treatment plants can provide early warning signs, indicating when viral levels are on the rise or declining.

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“There are still variants that continue to emerge and we need to ensure we are staying on top of the situation,” Bulir told McMaster’s Brighter World publication.

Samples from raw sewage generated from municipalities that include St. Thomas, Stratford, Goderich, Brantford, and Coburg are drawn three times per week, every hour, over a 24-hour period. The data is then uploaded to a central portal and used to project trends and inform public health discussions and decision-making.

Hamilton researcher tests wastewater to detect COVID-19 and other virus outbreaks

Sarah Marttala, left, and Doris Williams load samples for the McMaster waste water testing surveillance study at a lab at the Research Institute at St. Joseph’s – Hamilton. (Photo by the Research Institute at St. Joseph’s – Hamilton)

“This is a very new tool and while we are still optimizing the testing to maximize its usefulness, it is clear it can provide insight to the disease prevalence in different populations that can inexpensively provide useful information for public health decisions,” said McMaster chemical engineer Fran Lasowski, who is a member of Bulir’s team.

According to researchers, wastewater testing is highly sensitive and does not rely on people realizing they are sick and only then getting tested. They say it can be an early warning sign of a community outbreak.

“Wastewater testing is already a viable approach to keeping track of prevalence in the general population as well as protecting vulnerable populations,” said John Preston, associate dean of research, innovation, and external relations in the Faculty of Engineering.

“It is exciting to imagine how much improvement is possible from the sample collection through to the data analysis.”

Samples are also being drawn from three locations on McMaster’s Hamilton campus.

This form of testing and analysis goes beyond COVID-19, researchers say. It could be used to detect other pathogens such as influenza and hepatitis.

“If we could do year-round screening for influenza, for example, we might be able to identify the strains that come to Canada, when they arrive and whether or not it might be soon enough to influence vaccine choice so we can match circulating strains more effectively,” said Bulir.

He also said outbreaks could be detected in group settings, such as homeless shelters.

“This is an absolutely a novel field,” Bulir added. “But there could be significant advantages to shifting from wastewater facilities, which gives you a snapshot of the whole city, to more community-based facilities where we could test and get greater sensitivity to many pathogens.”

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