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COVID-19 research is going down the toilet in Guelph to prevent an outbreak

Click to play video 'Sewage can warn of coronavirus second wave: expert' Sewage can warn of coronavirus second wave: expert
WATCH: A U.S. study found that sewage can show coronavirus spikes 7 days ahead of tests. University of Ottawa Engineering professor Robert Dellatolla calls sewage "a tool that can act very much in real time."

It’s a dirty job, but it could be the key to preventing a COVID-19 outbreak.

Researchers at the University of Guelph are testing the campus’ sewer system to detect the novel coronavirus, which is released by human feces.

Read more: Sewage can give a week’s extra warning of coronavirus spikes, study shows

They say increases in levels of the virus in the sewers is an early warning sign that an outbreak may be underway, but it does not mean there is an active infection.

The virus makes its way down the toilet before a person shows symptoms and also potentially after a person has recovered, said Prof. Lawrence Goodridge, who is leading up the project.

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“The university is being proactive,” Goodridge said. “If we find evidence of the virus in wastewater, it’s an indication that there is potentially a problem coming up.”

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He added that previous research has found the virus appears in the sewers roughly a week before it shows up in the population.

The research in Guelph has been ongoing since the early days of the pandemic, but now it has progressed to the point where the research team is gathering samples from some of the university’s residences.

Click to play video 'COVID-19 wastewater research in Edmonton' COVID-19 wastewater research in Edmonton
COVID-19 wastewater research in Edmonton

Goodridge said Guelph appears to be the first university in Canada to test a campus residence.

“The data collected will have an immediate practical application because we can isolate the source of the infection by target testing that area,” he said.

Read more: How your sewage could help track coronavirus in your neighbourhood

The research, if used more widely in schools and neighbourhoods, could also help alleviate the pressure on COVID-19 assessment centres, the university said.

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“Wastewater surveillance is here to stay,” Goodridge said. “There are food-borne pathogens, emerging pathogens and there will probably be another coronavirus, so we are working to get out in front of this.”