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Canadian researchers test wastewater for new COVID-19 variants

  • Canadian researchers test wastewater for new COVID-19 variants

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University of Guelph
The University of Guelph is like no other university in Canada. Research-intensive and learner-centred, our campuses span urban hubs and rural communities. We are known for excellence in the arts and sciences.
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A University of Guelph research team monitoring wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 is now using the technology to search for variants.

Dr. Lawrence Goodridge and a team of U of G researchers including Drs. Ed McBean, School of Engineering; Heather Murphy, Department of Pathobiology; and Marc Habash, School of Environmental Sciences, have been sampling wastewater in several municipalities and U of G residences on campus since October for RNA fragments of the virus.

A related project, funded by Ontario Genomics and Genome Quebec through Genome Canada, involves working with the Public Health Agency of Canada and Université Laval in Quebec to conduct genome sequencing for any COVID-19 virus found in the wastewater.

“We have already begun finding variants in local wastewater. By sequencing the viruses, we may also detect new, emerging variants that haven’t yet been identified,” said Goodridge, a food- and water-borne pathogen expert and director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety.

The virus can be shed in the feces of those infected with COVID-19 days before they begin to feel ill and up to two to three weeks after. Surveillance of variants in the wastewater is an additional approach to clinical testing and offers the ability to scan countless samples in a non-invasive way, said Goodridge.

“In Ontario, a percentage of clinical samples are sequenced to confirm the presence of known variants.”

One sample of wastewater can contain virus particles from thousands of people. If new variants are circulating, they will likely be found in wastewater, he added.

“Therefore, determining the genomic sequence of viruses in wastewater is a complementary approach to testing individual clinical samples. If there are new variants that haven’t yet been detected, a new PCR test to look for those new variants could be designed for routine surveillance.”

Dr Lawrence Goodridge conducting testing on wastewater

Ontario Genomics president and CEO Bettina Hamelin said, “It is phenomenal to see this project expand its work to address SARS-CoV-2 viral variants through genomics-based wastewater surveillance. The agility in monitoring these existing and emerging variants allows us to understand the virus’s biology and how it spreads and thereby promptly inform public health measures. Ontario Genomics is committed to supporting breakthrough research that can be applied to real-world problems with meaningful solutions across sectors, including health care, natural resources and the environment, agriculture and food.”

The U of G research team was one of the first to begin surveilling campus residences’ wastewater for COVID-19 in Canada. Goodridge received funding from the University early in the pandemic to develop wastewater testing processes for measuring community-level exposure to the virus.

“From the moment this pandemic started, outstanding University of Guelph researchers like Dr. Goodridge and his team have mobilized their knowledge into action to confront this global challenge,” said Dr. Malcolm Campbell, vice-president (research). “They brought their impressive skills and world-class expertise to bear, transforming research into innovation, helping to advance this critical response to the pandemic, and are now using their ingenuity to help outrun evolving threats.”

The team has also received funding from the Ontario government to test wastewater in Guelph, Orangeville, St. Thomas and Halton region, including a Halton correctional facility. Announced recently, the $12-million initiative involves U of G along with 12 other academic and research institutions across the province to create a municipal wastewater surveillance network to test samples taken from communities across Ontario.

Testing of wastewater can serve as an early warning system to help spot emerging outbreaks before they are identified by traditional swab tests at COVID-19 testing facilities.

The aim of the Ontario-wide project is to provide municipalities with real-time data so they can identify, monitor and manage potential outbreaks and make informed public health decisions.

“Supporting innovative research like Dr. Goodridge’s at the University of Guelph will enhance Ontario’s pandemic response by making it possible to better track and monitor the spread of COVID-19,” said Kitchener-Conestoga MPP Mike Harris. “The real-time data these researchers are collecting from wastewater will help inform the decision of public health units, providing us with another tool in managing potential outbreaks.”