Researcher Mike McKay of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research and his team will be part of a first-of-its-kind province-wide SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance project announced yesterday and supported by Ontario Genomics, Genome Canada, and the biotech company Illumina.
Dr. McKay will collaborate with Ontario Genomics, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa, Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario, and others to analyze COVID-19 in wastewater to improve public health response and better understand outbreaks in communities across Ontario.
The project will enhance critical province-wide co-ordination and viral surveillance and support provincial and national efforts to understand how the virus that causes COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is changing over time through emerging variants, including variants of concern.
The virus responsible for COVID-19 is shed in feces. Early in the pandemic, McKay and his team from the UWindsor faculties of Science and Engineering recognized that trends in infection rates in communities can be determined by detecting the presence of the virus’s genetic signature in sewage entering wastewater treatment plants.
“An alternative to testing individuals lies literally beneath our feet in our municipal sewer systems,” McKay explained. “A 24-hour composite sample of raw sewage represents the fecal discharge of the entire community served by the plant, effectively providing a community-wide swab.”
Variants of concern have mutations that can make them more transmissible, capable of immune escape, and more likely to cause severe disease with a higher mortality rate, though wastewater surveillance can provide critical information about COVID-19 community spread sooner than individual test results or reports of illness.