Watching wastewater for COVID-19


Heather Buckley holds a container of wastewater samples on the way to the UVic lab for analysis. Credit: UVic Photo Services

When confronting a public health challenge like COVID-19, any tool that can act as a kind of viral early-warning system is a boon. A team of UVic researchers and a local tech firm are partnering to develop a sewage monitoring system that will provide information to help public health authorities detect and track future outbreaks of COVID-19. 

Since the genetic material from the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in the stools of infected people, analyzing a community’s wastewater is expected to be a much faster way to collect data about a city’s or region’s infection levels compared to just testing individuals and where case counts of viral infection lag actual transmission rates. And unlike serology tests, which show how widespread the was virus in the past, signs of the virus may show up in wastewater before people are symptomatic or if they’re asymptomatic, thus enabling a quicker public health response. 

Three UVic engineering researchers are working with Pani Energy Inc. to collect, manage and report to relevant public health authorities on the data gathered from wastewater plants across BC, beginning in Greater Victoria this month. 

“Having this predictive tool will be a real game changer, both in terms of responding to a second wave of COVID-19, as well as to other pathogen outbreaks over the longer term,” said Heather Buckley, a civil engineering researcher and head of the Green Safe Water Lab, a UVic-based research unit that aims to create technologies to empower communities in Canada and internationally to maintain a safe water supply. 

“Victoria is currently at a near-zero point with COVID-19, so any data we can collect now provides us with a baseline against which we can compare when the virus returns.” 

Buckley and UVic researcher Stephanie Willerth, chair of UVic’s Biomedical Engineering program, and Caetano Dorea, head of the Public Health and Environmental Engineering lab, will analyze the samples, run analyses and send their results to relevant public health authorities. 

Research teams across Canada—and many around the globe—are exploring wastewater surveillance as a way to more quickly identify COVID-19 hotspots. Such monitoring will be particularly important as authorities lift restrictions and then possibly reimpose them as new clusters of cases appear. 

Wastewater monitoring has also been used to detect opioid levels in specific communities. Over time, it’s hoped that monitoring waste will provide an important source of data both to assist researchers in exploring key questions about the progress of an infection and to help health officials make more informed decisions in dealing with pandemics. 

“For centuries, people have been tested individually for infectious diseases. Being able to test their collective waste to provide a supplemental data source for disease surveillance, is an emerging field with considerable potential,” says Devesh Bharadwaj, chief executive officer of Pani Energy, a company the UVic alum founded in 2017 as an offshoot of his engineering research projects at UVic. Pani is providing their expertise in data science and wastewater treatment to this project. 

“This is a major shift in how we approach health care, make health care decisions and advance health research,” he says. 

Buckley says the project has broader applications. A wide range of pathogens can be detected in wastewater and the use of the group’s network to monitor for outbreaks in parallel with clinical detection will provide a powerful and cost-effective tool to assist public health agencies. 

The UVic-led project is made possible through a special version of the Alliance grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada which promotes collaboration between industry and academia for projects that specifically address COVID-19.

A media kit containing high-resolution photos of Heather Buckley are available on Dropbox.

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In this story

Keywords: COVID, civil engineering, water, health, ECS expansion

People: Heather Buckley, Caetano Dorea, Stephanie Willerth, Devesh Bharadwaj

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