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U of Guelph to track wastewater for food-borne illnesses, COVID-19

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A new $6.5-million outbreak detection project led by a University of Guelph food scientist aims to develop an approach to metagenomic detection of food-borne pathogens in raw sewage that could also apply to tracking COVID-19.

Hamilton, Ontario-born scientist Lawrence Goodridge will lead the three-year Stopping Enteric Illnesses Early project under Genome Canada through Ontario Genomics and track wastewater in Quebec City, Guelph, and Winnipeg.

In combination with wastewater monitoring, project leaders will also monitor social media for keywords associated with enteric illness to detect possible outbreaks in specific geographical areas.

“Putting wastewater monitoring and social media analysis together could detect community outbreaks that might have otherwise gone undetected because the approach identifies infected people who aren’t yet showing symptoms or who do not show symptoms,” said Goodridge, who earned his PhD from the University of Guelph with a major emphasis in Food Microbiology and Food Safety in 2002.

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Goodridge is also the director of the Canadian Research Institute for Food Safety at the University of Guelph.

The University of Guelph project hopes to be a more proactive approach to the impediment that current surveillance methods rely on sick people to seek medical help when it comes to the identification of contaminated food. It is estimated that only a small proportion of enteric and food-borne illnesses are actually reported to public health. Each year, some 4 million people get sick from food-borne pathogens with 14,150 people hospitalized, and even 323 deaths. The annual economic burden can reach $4 billion, reports Genome Canada.

Enteric illnesses, which impact the intestines, can include illnesses such as botulism and salmonellosis.

The Stopping Enteric Illnesses Early project is one of 10 new genomics research projects across Canada to receive a total of $16 million in federal support through Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program.

“A key advantage of this flexible ‘omics (biological sciences that ends with “-omics”) and social media surveillance approach is that it can be scaled for rapid detection of other pathogens, and will be immediately utilized to monitor levels of SARS-CoV-2 (the COVID-19 virus) in wastewater, as an early indicator of changing case numbers prior to clinical presentation,” states Genome Canada in its project description.

Goodridge’s project joins other Canadian efforts to monitor SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater, such as the Canadian Water Network’s Wastewater Coalition’s Inter-Laboratory Study. It is in the first phase of a national pilot program to characterize the inter- and intra-laboratory variability associated with results from testing of SARS-CoV-2, using RT-qPCR after extraction from a common wastewater matrix.

“As the pandemic has made clear, investments in science are vital to ensuring the well-being, resilience and prosperity of our communities,” said Rob Annan, president and CEO of Genome Canada, in a statement.

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