Ontario ends funding for wastewater surveillance, opts to rely on federal program

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U.S. expands wastewater monitoring to help identify hot spots for H5N1 avian influenza.
Ontario’s wastewater surveillance program, which began in Ottawa early during the COVID-19 pandemic, had become one of the most respected surveillance programs in the world, tackling not only infectious diseases, but drug use trends, pollutants, and even antimicrobial resistance. Photo Credit: Felipe Caparrós, stock.adobe.com

Funding for Ontario’s wastewater surveillance program will end on July 31, after the province announced its intention to rely on federal testing through a data-sharing agreement with the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). 

Ontario’s wastewater surveillance program, which began in Ottawa early during the COVID-19 pandemic, had become one of the most respected surveillance programs in the world, tackling not only infectious diseases, but drug use trends, pollutants, and even antimicrobial resistance.

During questions with media, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks, Gary Wheeler, said the provincial program was being wound down to avoid duplication with federal wastewater testing.

Ontario doctors and researchers were contacted directly by phone and mail about the funding decision. Many took to X to share their dismay over the province pulling the plug, the timing of which concerned a number of the experts, particularly as the U.S. expands wastewater monitoring to help identify hot spots for H5N1 avian influenza.

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“The science [and] infrastructure is critical on an ongoing basis, including for communication to the community on COVID-19 risk (e.g. our COVID-19 and Other Respiratory Disease Index,) but also we have learned this is needed for detecting emerging risks,” wrote Peterborough’s Medical Officer of Health, Dr. Thomas Piggott, who also noted that the program costs are a small fraction of the costs for individual-level testing.

Provincial budget documents show the program cost $15 million in 2023-24 and was budgeted for $10.8 million in 2024-25.   

The COVID-19 wastewater surveillance in Ontario report was based on the original work of the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table, which dissolved in September 2022.

Robert Delatolla, a civil engineering professor at the University of Ottawa, noted that the number of wastewater surveillance sites in Ontario alone are comparable to the number of sites that PHAC has across the entire country.

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