Sewage testing for COVID spread receives special federal funding

Windsor Water Treatment Plant

A team of UWindsor researchers is using sewage to track and create an early warning system for the community spread of COVID-19.

Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading the project in conjunction with civil and environmental engineering professors, Nihar Biswas and Rajesh Seth and researchers from UWindsor’s Faculty of Science and the University of Tennessee.

Early into the pandemic, Dr. McKay recognized you can determine trends in the infection rates in a given community by detecting the presence of the virus’s genetic signature in the sewage entering wastewater treatment plants.

“An alternative to testing individuals lies literally beneath our feet in our municipal sewer systems,” McKay says. “A 24-hour composite sample of raw sewage represents the fecal discharge of the entire community served by the plant, effectively providing a community-wide swab.”

Staff at sewage treatment plants regularly collect samples of wastewater entering and leaving their facilities as part of regulatory compliance and process testing. The UWindsor team is gathering those samples from plants in Windsor, Lakeshore, Amherstburg and London and analyzing them for the presence of the virus’s RNA.

“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,” McKay says.

Dr. Seth and Dr. Biswas are providing data analysis and investigating the potential of concentrating sampling at targeted locations.

“We are investigating the possibility of using sewersheds to track and mitigate outbreaks at targeted, high-risk locations, such as long-term care facilities or student dorms,” Seth says. “In addition to providing a broader scan of people who have not been tested, it’s cost effective.”

Seth says just a few wastewater samples collected from sewers at targeted locations or the sewage treatment plants are able to capture results from the entire contributing population. Developing wastewater-based epidemiology expertise and related infrastructure can help the community prepare for future pandemics or return waves of the current one, he adds.

The project has to date received $300,000 for equipment from the Canada Foundation for Innovation and $50,000 from NSERC under special funds established in response to COVID-19.

The team is also collaborating with scientists conducting similar research across Ontario coordinated through the Canadian Water Network’s COVID-19 Wastewater Coalition.