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Calgary researchers looking at wastewater for early signs on COVID-19

Last Updated Jun 26, 2020 at 9:38 am MDT

This 2020 electron microscope image made available by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows the spherical particles of the new coronavirus, colorized blue, from the first U.S. case of COVID-19. Researchers in Canada say the best early-warning system for a second wave of COVID-19 may be right beneath our feet, in the sewers. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Hannah A. Bullock, Azaibi Tamin/CDC via AP)

CALGARY (660 NEWS) – The University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services (AHS) will soon be looking at your sewage.

A research team has been put together to test Calgary wastewater for early signs of COVID-19 cases.

The group will be analyzing samples from The City of Calgary’s wastewater treatment plants and several locations in the wastewater collection system to find areas where active cases of COVID-19 are starting to appear.

“This study will not only monitor for signs of COVID-19 cases at wastewater treatment plants, (but) we’re also moving further up in the pipes, closer to where people are flushing their toilets, in order to find neighbourhoods at risk,” said Dr. Michael Parkins with the Cumming School of Medicine.

“SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is excreted in the feces of those who are pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic, as well as those with overt symptoms. This will potentially allow us to identify cases before they are clinically evident.”

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Parkins added while researchers can find traces of the virus in wastewater, it can’t be transmitted through it.

The team is also collaborating with the City of Calgary on this project.

“City staff have the detailed knowledge of the wastewater collection system at the community level and have the expertise to collect the composite samples necessary for this initiative,” explains Dr. Norma Ruecker with the City of Calgary.

“It made complete sense to partner with the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services to advance our knowledge in wastewater-based epidemiology in the fight against this virus.”

Similar projects have either started or are in the works for other Canadian cities like Ottawa, Windsor, Montreal, and Edmonton.

“This is a tool that can actually provide an early alert to our public health in regards to re-emergence of infectivity in communities,” said Mike McKay with the University of Windsor.

The idea was tried in the Netherlands and France in the early days of the pandemic, and according to non-peer-reviewed studies, both were able to detect traces of the virus in wastewater before widespread outbreaks were confirmed in those countries.

Several states in the U.S., as well as Australia and Israel, have also looked to the sewers for signs of the virus.

In parallel to the wastewater testing, AHS will provide the team with up-to-date case data to validate the research.

In the later phases of the project, they will also advise on communities of concern so that wastewater testing can be deployed in those areas.

“By working together across infrastructure, clinical and research fields we are better positioned to obtain and analyze data much faster which will have a direct impact on potential public health strategies,” said Dr. Jia Hu, Medical Officer of Health for the Calgary Zone.

-With files from the Canadian Press