Mike McKayMike McKay is leading a research team using wastewater to study the transmission of COVID-19 in local communities.

Grant boosts UWindsor research tracking COVID-19 through sewage

UWindsor research using sewage as an early warning system for the next wave of COVID-19 is getting $50,000 in federal funding.

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) has awarded its maximum grant amount to a project led by Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. Dr. McKay’s research team has partnered with wastewater treatment plants in Amherstburg and Lakeshore to study viral loads before and after processing.

“We know that the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can be found in the feces of infected people, so the amount of virus coming into the treatment plants could be an indicator of the true infection rate in the community,” McKay said.

“It appears many people infected with the virus are asymptomatic or experience less severe symptoms and do not seek medical care or are otherwise not tested.”

The research will also delve into how long the virus can survive in the environment should it be discharged into Lake St. Clair or the Detroit River.

Between them, the water treatment plants in Amherstburg and Lakeshore serve a population of nearly 50,000. In addition to weekly samples, staff at the water treatment plants will provide data relating to the physical and chemical makeup of the wastewater and the volume of it processed.

McKay, who is normally focused on algal blooms, has teamed up with fellow Great Lakes researchers Ken Drouillard, Daniel Heath, and Chris Weisener; UWindsor cancer researcher Lisa Porter; and UWindsor civil and environmental engineers Nihar Biswas and Rajesh Seth. They are also collaborating with University of Tennessee researcher Steven Wilhelm, a GLIER adjunct professor who studies the behaviour of viruses in nature.

“We’ve all had to pivot and apply our expertise to COVID-19,” McKay said.

The team is co-ordinating its research through the non-profit Canadian Water Network and the Canadian Coalition on Wastewater-Related COVID-19 Research. The local pilot project is one of a handful across Canada implemented to demonstrate the value of this important public health tool, McKay said.

The research project will last one year, but McKay hopes to start rolling out data by mid-summer.

NSERC deemed the research worthy of a grant under a special $15 million fund established in response to COVID-19. The federal agency began funding important projects even before the application deadline to respond rapidly to the pandemic.

McKay’s research is the second UWindsor project to receive funding under the program. More funding announcements on COVID-related research at UWindsor are expected in the coming days.

—Sarah Sacheli