Researchers in Alberta will be monitoring wastewater to see if it can be used as an early detection of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities.
The majority of deaths in the province since the start of the pandemic have been long-term care residents.
Dr. Xiaoli Pang, a virologist at Alberta Precision Labs and professor at the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at the University of Alberta, said the research will look at wastewater samples from 10 long-term care facilities in Edmonton.
Those infected with COVID-19 shed the virus in their fecal matter. The research, which is being done in collaboration with the University of Alberta, AHS, APL and EPCOR, started at the beginning of 2021 and will run for one year.
Pang said monitoring wastewater at specific sites could lead to faster identification and response to COVID-19 outbreaks.
“With clinical detection, you need to collect the sample, send it to the lab to test. Usually there is three day’s delay. Because we can detect the same day – 24 hours to get the results – that means we may lead in three to seven days over that clinical diagnosis,” she said.
“We can do the infection control and (put) all of those measures in place.”
Pang said if residents and staff are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, there is the potential for two to three days of lead time in detecting cases.
“In theory, this is really, really important because if we can catch it in three days, that means we can immediately respond,” she said.
As the number of variant cases continue to rise in Alberta, Pang said wastewater surveillance could determine if vaccinations are effective.
Alberta Health said as of Tuesday, about 63 per cent of residents in long-term care and designated supporting living had been immunized with two doses of vaccine.
“If we continue to monitor – even if every resident and staff already gets the vaccine – if the vaccine is not protecting against the new virus, we may be able to do early detection using this system,” Pang said.
Pang is also involved with another project to track immunity of vaccinated long-term care residents and staff.
The aim is to collect blood from approximately 1,000 residents and 500 staff from nine long-term care facilities in Edmonton. Researchers will try and collect a sample before some seniors receive their second dose and will also follow up at three months, six months, 12 months and 18 months after they are fully immunized.
Pang said they will be comparing the level of antibodies in the residents to those of the workers, who are younger.
“Currently there is not enough evidence to show (how) these (seniors) are responding to vaccines, so this is why we are really interested in looking (at it),” she said.
“Secondly…it’s largely unknown how long (there is) protection.”
The project, which is supported by the Government of Canada’s COVID-19 Immunity Task Force, will start next week and run for up to 18 months.