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Ontario advances COVID variant testing with wastewater investment

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Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, director of the University of Guelph’s Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, says only a small percentage of clinical samples in Ontario are currently being sequenced to identify COVID-19 variants of concern in the general population. Photo credit: University of Guelph

New funding is helping researchers across Canada use wastewater surveillance to learn more about how the virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) is changing over time.

In Ontario, researchers at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario Research Institute, the University of Ottawa and the University of Guelph are working with an investment of more than $338,000 from Genome Canada, Ontario Genomics, and Illumina to develop tests for newer variants, such as the Delta and P1 variants seen in India and Brazil.

“Through a coordinated approach, leveraging the province’s deep genomics resources and capacity, this project will provide early signals of worrisome viral changes and equip public health with evidence for timely decision making,” said Dr. Bettina Hamelin, president and CEO of Ontario Genomics, in a statement. “Our end-to-end view of Ontario’s genomics ecosystem has enabled Ontario Genomics to break down silos and harness genomics expertise in the fight against COVID-19,” she added.

Also included in the network of wastewater surveillance technology (real-time quantitative reverse transcription PCR) researchers are the University of Waterloo, University of Windsor, Ryerson University, Health Sciences North Research Institute, among others.

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SARS-CoV-2 can be recognized in human waste up to a week before individuals develop symptoms and in people who remain asymptomatic but may spread the virus. By collecting fecal matter at key wastewater collection sites, researchers can get an early warning sign at the population level and preempt further spread by local public health interventions.

According to Dr. Lawrence Goodridge, director of University of Guelph’s Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety, only a small percentage of clinical samples in Ontario are currently being sequenced to identify variants of concern in the general population.

“With this investment, public health officials and researchers will be able to better interpret the wealth of public health data that we flush down the toilet every day,” said Dr. Tyson Graber, research associate, CHEO Research Institute. “It’s amazing how quickly this scientific field has matured since the beginning of the pandemic, starting from basic research projects in university labs to a surveillance program used by public health units across Ontario, providing a clearer picture of how COVID-19 is affecting their community. It is a stellar example of how open science and collaboration across disciplines can benefit all Ontarians,” added Graber.

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St. John’s, NL, Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility

As Ontario expands its testing, wastewater surveillance is spreading as a general tool right across the country. Last week, Newfoundland and Labrador researchers in the City of St. John’s began collecting samples from the Riverhead Wastewater Treatment Facility, which treats wastewater for approximately 130,000 people. To date, 24 wastewater samples have been collected, with only two out of 24 testing positive for COVID-19.

St. John’s Mayor Danny Breen said he was pleased to be “gathering important data throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to best address and protect the health of our citizens.”

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