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What you flush away could help uncover the arrival of a second COVID-19 wave

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Dr. Andrea Kirkwood of Ontario Tech University in her Faculty of Science lab.

Oshawa, ON – Most experts are united in their opinion that a second wave of COVID-19 will arrive. The question is where and how to detect where the next hot spot will be.

Researchers with Ontario Tech University’s Faculty of Science are working with Durham Region Health DepartmentDurham Region Works Department and other key partners to detect an anticipated second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The team will collect and test dozens of untreated sewage samples weekly from multiple water pollution control plants in Durham Region. They will check for traces of the virus and develop a model for predicting new cases for identifying new coronavirus hot spots in the area. The tracked information will be shared with Durham Region Health Department officials to help determine appropriate steps to limit or prevent further infection in the community.

“The results obtained from this study could potentially add another useful tool in the surveillance and advanced identification of possible COVID-19 activity occurring within certain areas of the community,” said Dr. Robert Kyle, Durham Region Medical Officer of Health.

The capacity for targeted wastewater sampling near local long-term care homes, for instance, means there will be an early warning system in place for vulnerable populations. The sampling protocol and models will be made available for use by other communities across Canada.

COVID-19 can spread rapidly. Many COVID patients are asymptomatic, so individuals may transmit the disease before it is detected. The development of state-of-the-art tools for early detection of viruses in wastewater can indicate the severity of infection in a community, mitigating and reducing infection spread.

Ontario Tech University biological science expert Dr. Andrea Kirkwood (part of Canadian Water Network’s COVID-19 Wastewater Coalition) will lead the sample testing with her Faculty of Science research colleagues Dr. Denina Simmons (Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Biology) and chemistry expert Dr. Jean-Paul Desaulniers. After initial tests in Dr. Kirkwood’s lab, Dr. Desaulniers’ lab will measure and quantify viral DNA. Dr. Simmons will look at pharmaceutical and metabolite indicators, and any biomarkers connected to COVID-19 disease symptoms. Ontario Tech mathematician Dr. Greg Lewis and computer scientists on the team will contribute to the predictive mathematical modelling.

Wastewater epidemiological – the study and analysis of the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations – monitoring will provide reliable data for potential infections within a certain area, and in some cases up to five days before residents start to show symptoms of infection.

These tools have the potential to protect public health and provide significant near-term and long-term economic savings.

Predictive models could serve as a basis for a proactive regional, provincial, or national response plans to mitigate the spread of infectious diseases, including a resurgence of COVID-19 or other viruses.

“This timely and vital wastewater detection project brings together an incredible wealth of community expertise,” said Dr. Steven Murphy, president and vice-chancellor, Ontario Tech University “Not only will this research directly benefit lives in our community, it also expresses our desire to use tech for good in everything we do.”

The innovative made-in-Durham solution includes external financial support, including:

  • $90,000 from Mitacs, a non-profit national research organization that works with academic institutions to meet business challenges with innovative research solutions.
  • $50,000 from the Ontario Clean Water Agency
  • $30,000 from Cole Engineering Group Ltd.
  • Major in-kind contributions from Durham Region

“This unique project showcases the kind of societal impact we can have by bringing industry, government and universities together,” said Mohsen Mortada, president and CEO, Cole Engineering Group. “We’re proud to be able to partner with Ontario Tech and the Region of Durham to help fight COVID-19.”

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