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Alberta COVID-19 wastewater surveillance study wrapping up next month

Click to play video: 'Alberta government’s COVID-19 wastewater study ending' Alberta government’s COVID-19 wastewater study ending
A province-wide study looking at whether wastewater could be used for COVID-19 surveillance is coming to an end. It started last year at 12 places across Alberta, including Epcor's Gold Bar plant in Edmonton, and wraps up next month – Apr 14, 2021

A study of the presence of COVID-19 in Alberta’s wastewater will soon be coming to an end.

Since last year, researchers from Alberta Health Services and Alberta Precision Laboratories have been studying samples taken from wastewater treatment plants around the province for the presence of COVID-19.

READ MORE: COVID-19 wastewater surveillance pilot program may involve Edmonton

Dr. Xiaoli Pang, a molecular biologist who works with AHS and APL and is the principal investigator of the study, said COVID-19 infected patients shed the virus in their stool, even if they are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic.

In the study, wastewater samples are being taken three times a week from facilities in Medicine Hat, Fort Saskatchewan, Canmore, Banff, Lethbridge, Calgary, Edmonton, High River, Grande Prairie and Red Deer.

The samples are shipped weekly to the research lab, meaning results are not real-time.

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Pang said the study is being done to see whether wastewater could play a role in the early detection of COVID-19 in a community.

“Can we detect and quantify this virus in the local community, correlated with the clinical diagnosed cases?” she said.

Though Albertans with symptoms or close contacts of confirmed cases can get testing now, Pang points to wastewater as an equalizing force.

“Sometimes some people (are not very) sick, they don’t want to be tested… Wastewater tests everybody.”

“We can detect asymptomatic, pre-asymptomatic, so this is why we believe this system can do earlier detection than the clinical diagnostic (tests).”

Read more: Researchers looking for clues to the COVID-19 pandemic in city sewers

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Dr. Bonita Lee, a pediatric infectious disease physician and co-applicant on the study, said researchers are discussing the best way to analyze the results, but she said the preliminary data shows there is a correlation with what we have seen with the disease in the province.

“The question is whether we can use the data from wastewater as modelling to maybe predict what is the angle of change… is it going to be predictive or not? We don’t know yet. Whether we can tell the future, we don’t know that part yet,” Lee said.

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Other jurisdictions doing similar studies have made their results public, but Lee said there is no exact timeline on when that could happen here.

“I’m certain when we actually know what our data means, the best we can from a scientific point of view, I think those data can be shared with everyone,” she said.

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The study is slated to wrap up at the end of May.

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