How sewage can help scientists detect COVID-19

BlackburnNews.com file photo.

As early as next week, scientists at the Great Lakes Institute For Environmental Research could start testing sewage in Windsor, Lakeshore, and Amherstburg for signs of COVID-19.

Lakeshore and Amherstburg have signed on to the nation-wide pilot project coordinated by the Canadian Water Network. The City of Windsor is working on final details before it, too, joins the project.

GLIER Director Mike McKay told BlackburnNews.com samples will be taken from raw sewage that enters wastewater plants at least once a week. Plant operators already take samples weekly anyway under compliance regulations. They will collect it at the same time. Once those are collected, McKay said they could have the results in a day or two.

The idea is those who have COVID-19, whether symptomatic or not, shed RNA from the virus in their waste, and testing sewage would give public health officials greater insight into the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

The idea first appeared in March when some non-peer reviewed data suggested it was possible to detect COVID-19 in raw sewage.

“The assumption all along has been the rates of infection in the community are higher than are reported through our public health units,” explained McKay. “Everyone who is infected — has the potential to shed virus in their waste.”

It could also give public health officials early warning to new trends in the pandemic, including a possible second wave of infection.

GLIER scientists will be working with researchers from the University of Windsor’s engineering and sciences faculties, an infectious disease expert from the University of Tennessee, and the City of Detroit.

“The City of Detroit has started this type of surveillance in collaboration with the scientists from Michigan State University,” said McKay. “They are interested in working with us archiving some samples so we can process and compare the data.”

“This is something that none of us thought we would be working on,” he added. “The Great Lakes Institute, we work on stressors to our Great Lakes environment, but we realized that we had the expertise and the infrastructure available to make this pivot and make this contribution to the community.”