University of Windsor project to test wastewater for COVID-19 continues to expand file photo courtesy of Alvimann via morgueFile

Researchers at the University of Windsor testing sewage for early signs of COVID-19 outbreaks will get $540,000 to support a new provincial wastewater surveillance system.

In November, the Executive Director at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research told the province was interested in expanding a local project.

At the time, Mike McKay’s team was testing samples from just four communities; Windsor, Amherstburg, Lakeshore, and London. Since joining a network of Ontario labs monitoring sewage for COVID-19, the project has grown to include Leamington, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, and Thunder Bay.

The Ontario government plans to invest more than $12-million to further expand the project by partnering with 13 academic and research institutions across the province. Called the Ontario Wastewater Surveillance Initiative, the network will get technical expertise and equipment from the Ontario Clean Water Agency.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 gives us a close-to-real-time way to track the spread of the virus, even before people begin showing symptoms,” said Minister of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks Jeff Yurek.

Research underway since last June indicates RNA from COVID-19 is shed through fecal matter, which can be detected in wastewater.

“Since many people infected with the virus are asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms and never seek medical care or are tested, detecting the virus’s genetic material in wastewater is a good indicator of the true infection rate in the community,” explained McKay.

The discovery can alert public health officials to an outbreak in the broader community and at specific locations. McKay’s group is collecting samples from sewers on the university’s campus to monitor the health of students living in residence. He has said the testing regiment could be instrumental to the return of on-campus instruction at the university.

The science has broader implications too.

“Little did I know a year ago the potential wealth of information contained in our wastewater stream,” said McKay, whose project started just last June. “From tracking pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs to human pathogens, wastewater truly is a community swab, and wastewater-based epidemiology will become an important tool for public health beyond the current pandemic.”