April 1st 2020-Queen’s University researchers from the Beaty Water Research Centre (BWRC) 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.
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.
“There has been a real ‘all-hands-on-deck’ call across Queen’s University with the COVID-19 epidemic," says Stephen Brown, Associate Professor with the Dept. of Chemistry and School of Environmental Studies, and co-director of the Queen’s WSI program. "This wastewater surveillance initiative has provided an opportunity for wastewater researchers in the BWRC to contribute to the community response.”
The BWRC team, 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 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. Additional wastewater treatment facilities and other sites in the region will be added as the project proceeds.
“The COVID-19 challenge has brought new emphasis on Wastewater Based Epidemiology," Sarah Jane Payne, Assistant Professor in Civil Engineering, and co-director of the WSI at Queen’s states. "This initiative will provide Queen’s University with an opportunity to establish a foothold in this important the emerging research area and prime us to meet future challenges.”
Utilities Kingston started collecting samples for SARS-CoV-2 analysis starting in June 2020, and those samples were stored frozen by the BWRC group, in anticipation of later analysis capacity being available. Now that the BWRC 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.
"Samples are collected at the start of the wastewater treatment process, at both the Ravensview and Cataraqui Bay wastewater treatment plants, contributing to a shared goal of protecting public health from COVID-19” says Jim Keech, president and CEO of Utilities Kingston who added "we are pleased to work with Queen's University to analyze these samples and develop a baseline for our community."
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.
Queen’s has received $586,000 to help with this project.