A research team at the University of Calgary (UofC) is helping Albertans to make the best of a crappy situation by testing municipal wastewater samples for evidence of COVID-19.
Casey Hubert, research chair with the Department of Biological Sciences at the UofC, said evidence of COVID-19 is traceable in wastewater and can be detected much earlier than testing individuals for the virus.
“People who are infected with SARS-COV-2 also poop out the virus and genetic material and what we have is an assay that detects and quantifies that genetic material,” explained Hubert. “We can see if a timed series of samples is showing SARS-COV-2 going up and down and if we take those samples from a community’s wastewater treatment plant, that’s similar to getting a swab for the whole city, or the whole community.”
Just because it’s the subject of their study, doesn’t mean that Hubert and his team are doing a crappy job of their research. Contaminated wastewater samples can show evidence of COVID-19 from a person even after the first few days of infection, prior to the emergence of symptoms.
Hubert explained wastewater testing is becoming a powerful way to get an early warning of infection trends across communities.
“We’ve heard a lot about asymptomatic people with COVID-19 … they could be spreading it before they know they’re sick,” said Hubert. “If you’re looking at the wastewater data, you can get an early warning that the (numbers) are going up, and that’s really valuable. That gives individuals or public health officials information they can act on.”
The Town of Strathmore signed up to the province-wide examination program that the UofC Department of Biological Sciences is running in collaboration with the Alberta Ministry of Health.
The team has been testing in Strathmore for several weeks and residents are now able to visit the team’s website.
“If you click on the Strathmore link, you’ll see that Strathmore specific samples have been collected since November, and so there’s a few data points now,” said Hubert. “We have enough experience now to see how public health officials are using the results. For example, wastewater is being discussed by decision-makers high up in the province, the information trickles down to emergency command centers.”
Residents are encouraged to periodically update themselves on local COVID-19 trends and make informed decisions about whether to attend certain functions or participate in activities such as visiting a restaurant.
The website to visit to view up to date results is https://covid-tracker.chi-csm.ca and clicking the “wastewater” tab on the top right, then finding your local community on the displayed map.
John Watson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Strathmore Times