Sleuthing in sewage to track down COVID-19

Scientists at McMaster University are looking to devise and implement a provincewide way to detect the novel coronavirus — and it involves wastewater
By Justin Chandler - Published on Jun 23, 2020
Research indicates that COVID-19 detection in wastewater could help determine the virus’s prevalence within specific populations. (iStock.com/TheDman)

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Hamilton scientists Zobia Jawed and Gail Krantzberg say that the new COVID-19-tracking project they’re running at McMaster University relies on a “bottom-up” approach. That’s in reference to the fact that the effort relies on forming partnerships across the province, but it can also be taken another way: the professors want to develop an Ontario-wide method for detecting the novel coronavirus in municipal sewage systems. “This is just an amazing project to look at, because it's different,” Jawed says. “It's unique.”

McMaster isn’t the only post-secondary institution looking to Ontario’s sewers in the battle against COVID-19: viral particles can shed from human feces, and tests around the world have shown that detection in wastewater could help determine the virus’s prevalence within specific populations. However, Jawed and Krantzberg suggest that the scope of their project sets it apart. “There are a number of other universities that are working with one wastewater-treatment plant as a scientific experiment,” says Krantzberg. “This is a very practical, hands-on, building-capacity, building-momentum [approach] across Ontario, from place to place to place — and I really want to emphasize that."

The first phase of the W. Booth School of Engineering Practice and Technology’s project, which began in May, involves gauging interest from prospective partners, including municipalities that agree to conduct testing and private companies that manufacture equipment. Jawed and Krantzberg are also asking for $5,000 contributions in seed funding to cover the cost of hiring students to help with research, analysis, and administrative work. To date, upwards of 20 partners have come on board with either funding or other resources, although the professors declined to provide specifics, citing confidentiality (TVO.org has confirmed that Midland and the Regional Municipality of Niagara have signed on). The next phase, due to start in July, will centre on assessing any gaps in knowledge, resources, or funding within communities. 

Krantzberg says that, to start, testing might involve a wastewater-treatment operator looking through an electron microscope to detect parts of the virus. Once communities are testing, the plan is for them to feed testing data into a McMaster-led artificial intelligence system that would help determine where the coronavirus is prevalent. Public-health officials would then have a better idea of where they should focus resources when testing people for the virus directly. The hope is that municipalities could one day be regularly testing wastewater for COVID-19, as they do for E. coli and other bacteria.

Cost could be a barrier, Krantzberg acknowledges. “One of the difficulties with some of the more sophisticated technologies is that they can be expensive,” she says. To address this, Jawed and Krantzberg are looking to the private sector for help. “We are now looking at a number of industrial partners — industrial-sized businesses, large-scale businesses — who've come to us saying, ‘How can we be part of this? How can we help?’” she says. “And we're hoping perhaps some of the private labs who have the technology could service some of the smaller municipalities — those who don't have the capacity to do the testing.” The goal is not for one institution to be testing everyone’s samples but for communities to be self-sufficient. “We're not just identifying what is the local reality,” Jawed explains. “We're also working together with industry partners and others to build local capacity.” 

Along with analyzing gaps in testing ability, the plan is to produce a feasibility report, which is expected to take about three months. Jawed says it will determine where testing can realistically happen and how. Jawed, who has years of experience doing wastewater-related research, says she’s been able to leverage her knowledge and contacts to gain support for the project from different communities in the Hamilton-Niagara region and beyond: “It's building momentum very rapidly, frankly — faster than we even imagined.”

Jawed says that the partnership structure is a particularly effective way to tackle the project, because every sewage system is unique. Each system is mapped, organized, and set up differently, meaning there is no easy-to-apply, one-size-fits-all solution for testing. In the Regional Municipality of Niagara, for example, the water and wastewater division collects and treats 200 million litres of sewage every day, from 11 different plants. (The unusually high number of plants was the result of amalgamation.) In Hamilton, where municipal officials are currently in talks with Jawed and Krantzberg about taking part in the project, two plants service the entire city, processing an average of 300 million litres on a dry day.

Jason Oatley, a wastewater manager for the Regional Municipality of Niagara, says his team supports the McMaster project and is willing to collect COVID-19 samples. “I think it's novel to try and look at it like this,” Oatley says. “We're more than willing to help; we have lots of sewage.” He says that it’s also common to test for pharmaceuticals, such as birth control or drugs, including marijuana and caffeine, in sewage. But he’s never seen testing for a virus and says that work will need to go into figuring out how Niagara can get the necessary equipment. “When we look for bacteria and things like that with our microscopes, you really have to do several steps to isolate things so that you don't see just everything — because it's macroscopic stuff. There's just chunks of things,” Oatley says. “So when you're looking for something that's a virus at that level, how do you exclude all the other things that are in sewage?”

Such technical questions need to be answered before the project can reach its ultimate goal of creating proposed provincial guidelines, but Jawed is optimistic and expects to be receiving samples for testing within a few months: “We can potentially leverage this for years to come, for generations to come, so they can start looking at, not just COVID-19 while we we're in this, but we start thinking about more emerging issues as they're coming our way.”

She’s also excited by the response so far. “When it's just me and Gail working together, we have come up with so much — all of this approach was created by us,” she says. “If just two people can do this, then think about if everyone around Ontario starts working on this together. Why wouldn't we find solutions to this problem?”

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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