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New website lets Calgarians track traces of COVID-19 in their wastewater

Click to play video: 'New website lets Calgarians track traces of COVID-19 in their wastewater' New website lets Calgarians track traces of COVID-19 in their wastewater
WATCH: Researchers at the University of Calgary are using data from wastewater samples to track COVID-19 cases. The researchers say it will help health officials make decisions in their response to larger outbreaks. Adam MacVicar reports – Mar 8, 2021

A new website that tracks traces of COVID-19 found in Calgary’s wastewater is now up and running and available to the public.

The data comes from a collaboration between the City of Calgary, University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services and is available on the Centre for Health Informatics website.

The site shows real-time SARS-CoV-2 data for Alberta, including traces of the virus found in three different wastewater collection zones in Calgary.

In a news release, the U of C said the data can help identify outbreaks early and pinpoint areas of the city where infection rates are high.

“Wastewater data is unbiased and comprehensive,” Dr. Michael Parkins from Cumming School of Medicine said. “It captures all cases in a defined population, including symptomatic and asymptomatic cases – not just those diagnosed cases.”

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Read more: Calgary’s wastewater to be tested for traces of COVID-19 virus

The data shows high levels of SARS-CoV-2 traces found in wastewater are followed by a rise in diagnosed cases.

“These findings suggest that this technology can be used as an early warning system,” Parkins said.

While researchers can find traces of the virus in the wastewater, officials say wastewater does not transmit it.

AHS is looking at the data as an additional tool to understand how COVID-19 is spreading in the community.

“Anything that helps provide earlier detection — at the community level — of COVID-19 outbreaks, and how they are spreading, would be a valuable tool in our response to the pandemic,” AHS spokesperson James Wood said in a statement. “As project partner, receiving results in real-time, AHS integrates this research project’s data with other clinical data to better understand COVID-19 dynamics in the community.”

AHS said it is considering how best to use the information collected as part of its COVID-19 response.

To see Calgary’s wastewater COVID-19 data, you can visit chi-csm.ca and scroll down to the subheading titled “Wastewater Sampling.”

The data includes a map of Calgary, divided up into three areas, based on the collection zone for each City of Calgary wastewater treatment plant.

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A screenshot of the map of Calgary on the chi-csm.ca website as of March 8, 2021.
A screenshot of the map of Calgary on the chi-csm.ca website as of March 8, 2021. Global News

“Each data point represents a 24-hour period where a 100 ml sample is taken every 15 minutes to generate a 10-litre sample,” Parkins said. “We then test to look for evidence of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic material.”

The tracker shows data starting in July 2020, when the group started gathering samples.

Read more: Researchers monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 at Edmonton long-term care facilities

Danielle Southern, a senior researcher at the Centre for Health Informatics, anticipates that future wastewater data will be of value to help answer the question of what can be re-opened safely.

“Policymakers might be interested to use wastewater tracking in specific locations, where you might be able to pick up on the outbreaks earlier and limit the spread,” Southern said.

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“The wastewater could give us some predictive tools. Say you’re seeing it in a high school, that means it’s probably out in your community, whereas if it’s in a hospital, those people are likely constrained to that one place.”

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According to Alberta Health, the wastewater research is still in preliminary stages and not used to inform policy at the moment.

“Alberta’s response to COVID-19 continues to evolve as more information and evidence becomes available,” Alberta Health spokesperson Sherene Khaw said in a statement. “Alberta Health and AHS are in contact with the University of Alberta and University of Calgary research teams to stay informed about the results.”

Location-specific sampling is in the works as well.

“Due to the complexity of sample collection and processing, at this time we can’t assess each neighbourhood in the city, but instead are currently assessing a mixture of communities,” Parkins said.

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“Hopefully, in several weeks, we can introduce more data to the tracker from specific areas within Calgary.

“Wastewater testing has tremendous potential to help keep our communities safe and catch outbreaks before they reach critical mass.”

How does it work?

Wastewater is a mix of liquids and solids that have gone down your sink, bathtubs and toilets, flowing into shared sewer pipes.

According to the U of C, the samples are processed by Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) before going to the U of C’s geomicrobiology and clinical microbiology labs.
Lab teams then analyze the sample for traces of the virus’ genetic material.

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— With files from Adam MacVicar, Global News

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