Edmonton and other municipalities across the country may soon be part of a pilot program to determine whether wastewater is a helpful tool when it comes to COVID-19 surveillance.
The Canadian Water Network recently set up the Canadian Coalition on Wastewater-Related COVID-19 Research to help provide data that can then inform public health decisions.
The pilot project, which is being designed by a National Research Advisory Group chaired by Dr. Steve Hrudey of Edmonton, stems from the coalition.
Hrudey, who is a retired professor from the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, said wastewater can provide aggregate information about a community.
“We all have to use the toilet and that’s connected to a sewer system. It’s all collected to one point and a composite sample over a period of time at that point basically represents the discharge from the entire population,” he said.
Wastewater has been previously studied to track cannabis use along with other types of drug use in a community. Some countries have used wastewater to look at the re-emergence of diseases such as polio, according to Bernadette Conant, CEO of the Canadian Water Network.
Hrudey said wastewater could provide COVID-19 surveillance on a population and assist in the detection of those who are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic.
However, he said it does not replace widespread testing; rather, tracking of wastewater supplements it.
“The fact is we’ll never be able to test everybody every day. We know you can be negative one day and positive the next. The sampling demands on clinical testing are simply unmanageable in the global sense whereas single samples, a composite sample for one day from the City of Edmonton gives you a signal from a million people,” Hrudey said.
The pilot program is expected to start running in a few weeks and will involve multiple locations across the country; Hrudey said Edmonton is on the list.
He said wastewater may also prove helpful in forecasting subsequent waves of COVID-19.
“This could give early indications of that happening and would allow public health decision-makers to anticipate that before they’re seeing sick people,” he said.
The pilot program will be analyzed to determine whether it provides information helpful when making public health decisions, such as reopening or restrictions.
“The more important question, is seeing it in wastewater giving you information that actually helps? Does its work actually inform a real decision for public health?” said Conant.
Conant said the pilot program would likely run for one year, and there’s hope it will then inform a possible national wastewater COVID-19 surveillance and detection program.