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Tackling COVID-19 spread by monitoring wastewater

Interdisciplinary research team at Queen’s University joins national network.

An interdisciplinary research team at Queen’s University is taking the first step in establishing a local group in the  National Sewage Sentinel Surveillance  in Canada. The pilot project is developing capacity to detect SARS-CoV-2 (the infectious agent that causes COVID-19) in sewage and septic samples. 

This work, being conducted at the Beaty Water Research Centre (BWRC), will help with early detection of community-borne COVID-19 and can also be applied to future viral outbreaks. 

“The novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) has been detected in stool of some infected individuals, including asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic,” says Stephen Brown, professor in the Department of Chemistry and an affiliate of BWRC. “Feces of COVID-19 infected patients may serve as a mechanism for community surveillance with the possibility of earlier detection of outbreaks.” 

The focus of the initial study will be to work with samples from potential hotspots as a way to monitor campus health. The team will also be receiving samples from the Peel region, which has continuously been a hotspot in Ontario for COVID-19 cases. 

This pilot study will use the results as a sentinel for community COVID-19 infection levels and for surveillance for early emergence or reemergence (future waves, seasonal reoccurrence), thereby informing public health mitigation. 

The team will then start with sampling wastewater from Kingston and surrounding areas by working with local utilities and, down the line, the researchers would also like to expand to testing sewage from rural communities who rely on their own private drinking wells and septic systems. 

“Although SARS-CoV-2 has been shown to be effectively removed through a variety of standard water treatment processes, in the absence of a treatment system, households that rely on private supplies may be vulnerable to fecal-oral transmission through the drinking of well water contaminated by a nearby septic tank,” says Dr. Brown. “Another natural extension is to sample recreational waters. For example, the possibility of storm water overflows releasing untreated or partially treated sewage into a receiving recreational water body.” 

For more information please contact the BWRC at BWRC.info@queensu.ca.