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Ottawa researchers say wastewater testing for COVID variant coming soon

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As Canada’s capital attempts to control surging new cases from reaching “grey” level status, a collaboration between the CHEO Research Institute and University of Ottawa researchers with Ottawa Public Health is helping the city move quickly towards the creation of a wastewater test to monitor the spread of what’s known as the B.1.1.7 variant of COVID-19.

New information from the Ottawa collaborators suggests that wastewater testing for the variant, which first surfaced in the U.K. and is widely considered to be more contagious, may still be a few weeks out.

Ottawa is currently in the red zone and approaching grey status — the highest tier of the province’s colour-coded response framework — as the pandemic enters its second year. The status switch would identify the city with 3x the percent of tests coming back positive, 2.5x the hospitalizations, plus increasing levels in wastewater.

Currently, Ottawa is one of the only cities in Canada doing daily wastewater testing for the virus SARS-CoV-2.

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While only a handful of B.1.1.7 variant cases have been detected so far in Ontario, and targeted swab testing for the variant is taking place in Ottawa and elsewhere in Ontario, wastewater testing will require more time to be introduced, Ottawa researchers say.

“We are fortunate in Ottawa to have the Robert O. Pickard Environmental Centre which collects and treats wastewater from 91.6% of Ottawa’s population,” Ottawa Public Health states on its website.

Media reports suggest that scientists from the University of Guelph and the Public Health Agency of Canada are also close to having a wastewater test available for the variant, which appears to have an unusual number of mutations, scientists have discovered.

The U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that scientists are working to learn more about the variant to “better understand how easily it might be transmitted and whether currently authorized vaccines will protect people against it.” There is no evidence at the present time, CDC officials said, that this variant causes more severe illness or increased risk of death.

CDC officials say they are stepping up efforts to increase the sequencing of SARS-2 viruses to learn more about variants.

While researchers work on testing to identify the RNA of the variant and its level of community spread, scientists have been quick to note that there is some variability in the readings, and researchers and engineers are working on improving wastewater methodology.

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Graphic credit: Ottawa Public Health.

According to Ottawa Public Health, some of the reasons for this variability are that the level of virus in stools is fairly low; the actual number of people with COVID-19 may be quite low in relation to the total population; and wastewater is a harsh environment which may break down the viral RNA, resulting in lower readings.

“Nonetheless, ongoing research has observed a strong correlation with other established COVID-19 measures,” states Ottawa Public Health.

Tyson Graber, associate research scientist at the CHEO Research Institute and co-lead investigator on the wastewater monitoring project, has been the public face of wastewater testing in the National Capital Region alongside University of Ottawa Associate Professor Robert Delatolla. Also of note on the project is Dr. Alex MacKenzie, senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute.

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