How Calgary’s wastewater helped track COVID-19 — and could help fight future outbreaks

CALGARY — A University of Calgary team tracking the city’s wastewater found sewage surveillance can serve as an early warning system for COVID-19 cases and outbreaks.

“We’ve demonstrated that we have a six-day leading indicator and we’ve been able to show that, at specific facilities like hospitals, we can predict outbreaks,” said Kevin Frankowski, co-leader of the project with the U of C’s Cumming School of Medicine.

“Basically we detect (outbreaks) as they occur, rather than having to wait for the clinical data to show up.”

Researchers say the same testing can be used in the future, whether it be for flu season or another pandemic.

“Similar to how detectives look for DNA evidence at a crime scene, we’re looking for the RNA signal that the virus that causes COVID leaves behind in the wastewater,” Frankowski said. 

“So we’re not looking for the virus itself. We’re looking for the genetic fingerprint that it leaves behind.”

The wastewater testing project just wrapped up a one year pilot in Calgary. Samples were taken at three hospitals, three wastewater treatment plants and in seven neighbourhoods. 

“The wastewater testing really does offer an early warning signal,” said Casey Hubert, another co-leader of the project and an associate professor in biological sciences. 

“What we are sampling contains really valuable information from all the people who go to the bathroom in this region.”

In the same way COVID-19 outbreaks in certain facilities or neighbourhoods were noticed early, cases such as polio or measles could be found by using wastewater monitoring as well. So could other public health concerns like nicotine and alcohol or drug use, researchers say.

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