COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Initiative



Queen’s University researchers are collaborating with universities and utility companies across Ontario to launch the Wastewater Surveillance Initiative (WSI). The project, which is coordinated and funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, will determine how wastewater surveillance for SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) can be used in combination with clinical data to help proactively inform public health decision making and protect our communities. Queen’s has received $586,000 to help with this project.

Through the collaborative efforts of scientists, engineers and epidemiologists, wastewater surveillance of COVID-19 RNA has rapidly evolved. The SARS-CoV-2 virus has been found in stool from people who are symptomatic, pre-symptomatic, and asymptomatic, and traces of the SARS-CoV-2 virus can be found in wastewater. By monitoring sewage samples, it may be possible to identify early presence of COVID-19 in a community before increases in clinical cases are detected, to optimize allocation of testing resources, and to identify trends in transmission for better predictive models for this as well as future outbreaks.

SARS-CoV-2 Virus Particle

Sarah Jane Payne and Stephen Brown

Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox & Addington Public Health

Utilities Kingston Loyalist TownshipCity of Cornwall

The team which is led by co-led by Stephen Brown (Chemistry & Environmental Studies) and Sarah Jane Payne (Civil Engineering), in partnership with Utilities Kingston, and in coordination with Kingston, Frontenac Lennox & Addington (KFL&A) Public Health, has started sampling sewage at the inlet to wastewater treatment facilities in Kingston. Samples are then transported to BWRC laboratories at Queen’s University, where they are analysed for the SARS-CoV-2 RNA using the same reverse-transcriptase polymerase chain reaction (RT-qPCR) technology that is the gold standard for clinical testing. Additional wastewater treatment facilities and other sites in the region will be added as the project proceeds.

Utilities Kingston started collecting samples for SARS-CoV-2 analysis starting in June 2020, and those samples were stored frozen by the group, in anticipation of later analysis capacity being available. Now that the Queen's group has joined the WSI and established the methods for SARS-CoV-2 detection in sewage, analysis of archived samples has commenced. The purpose is to determine the correlation between sewage monitoring results and the known past COVID-19 case history to help understand the expected relationship going forward. Results will be communicated through KFL&A Public Health shortly. The group has now also partnered with Loyalist Township and the City of Cornwall to test wastewater in a weekly basis. 

The Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks is investing over $12 million into the COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Initiative to test wastewater samples taken from communities across the province. The ministry is partnering with academic and research institutions in Ontario, and in cooperation with various public health units and municipalities, to create an integrated initiative that expands wastewater sampling and analysis provincewide.