Protecting Communities Against Covid-19 Variants and Other Viruses – Meet Dr. Abdul Rahman Alashraf

Post-Doctoral Fellow, Queen’s University and Beaty Water Research Centre
Dr. Abdul Rahman Alashraf

Written by Catherine Andre

Dr. Abdul Rahman Alashraf is a Post-Doctoral Fellow at Queen’s University using wastewater to monitor Covid-19 as part of the Wastewater Surveillance Initiative program (WSI). The program is funded by the Ontario Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and is run at the Beaty Water Research Centre (BWRC). Abdul has a degree in veterinary medicine and a PhD in small animal medicine with a focus on the zoonosis virus. Abdul began his postdoctoral work at the peak of the pandemic looking into ways to measure the Covid-19 virus circulation with Dr. Stephen Brown (Environmental Studies) and Dr. Sarah Jane Payne (Civil Engineering, Water analysis). The purpose of their work was to see how much information on Covid-19 can be known using wastewater samples.

This Queen’s research team was initially looking to see if wastewater can be used as a tool to study Covid-19 and if there is a correlation between wastewater data and Covid-19 outbreaks. Abdul explains, “The SARS-CoV-2 virus is 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.” Further, they needed to examine the correlation between Covid-19 in wastewater and clinical data. The conclusion of their research is that there is a direct correlation between wastewater data and how many people are infected with Covid-19 in a specific location. Their lab can even detect Covid-19 variants and can track these different variants in the local community. Their methodology is accurate to track specific targets and provides an early indicator of variant emergency in communities. Ultimately, the WSI is in place to help public health navigate the pandemic and protect the public from new variants that might emerge. Abdul explains, “By monitoring sewage samples, it is possible to identify the presence of Covid-19 in a community and to identify trends.” Even better, wastewater can provide this information before the Covid-19 cases “level up” so public health can prepare in advance. In other words, people who have contracted the virus may show no indication of infection, but wastewater analysis can see the increase in virus circulation and notify cities of a pending outbreak far in advance and, hence, better protect their communities.

Abdul outlines, “Wastewater samples from Eastern Ontario and KFL&A wastewater treatment plants are transported to the BWRC 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 but quantitively.” By knowing virus concentrations in wastewater, their team can map trends to understand the circulation of Covid-19 in the community. As a result of the BWRC’s exemplary establishment of high-standard quality control measures, BWRC now screens the wastewater samples from several cities in eastern and western Ontario. Daily wastewater samples are run at BWRC and reported within 24 hours, and the generated data is shared with MECP and public health. The data is then used by advisory committees tracking the status of Covid-19 to advise the public on best practices to contain further transmission. The public can also track wastewater data on public-facing dashboards. BWRC is now using wastewater for the tracking of other viruses such as the common flu as this highly developed tool can be used beyond Covid-19 to further protect the health of our communities.