COVID-19 wastewater testing expanding in Nova Scotia

·2 min read

Researchers at Dalhousie University are teaming up with three other Nova Scotia universities to expand a program that tests for COVID-19 indicators in wastewater.

About $850,000 is being invested into the expansion. The work builds on the recent results of a pilot study in Halifax and Wolfville where the virus that causes COVID-19 was detected in wastewater.

Now testing will be done at many more locations in the province.

"We'll be open to the province to focus on what could be priority sites," said Dr. Graham Gagnon, the lead researcher of the project who is the director of the Dalhousie University Centre for Water Resource Studies.

"It is really going to be a co-ordinated project at multiple locations to see what we can learn in collecting COVID samples from wastewater."

Gagnon said one of those priority areas will be Halifax Stanfield International Airport.

Researchers will be making regular sample collections from there as well as at Dalhousie, Acadia University, St. Francis Xavier University and Cape Breton University, and several towns and municipalities.

"Our hope is that by being more co-ordinated and more controlled, we'll have better data and better information for our colleagues in public health," said Gagnon.

Although COVID-19 is a respiratory illness, the genetic material of the virus that causes COVID-19 has been found in wastewater.

The 18 member project team includes scientists, researchers and students.

The funding, provided by Research Nova Scotia, will help pay for staff, protective equipment, travel and other costs.

Public Health to monitor research data

Nova Scotia Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Robert Strang said one of the province's regional medical officers of health will sit on the research project's advisory committee "to make sure there's a good flow of information ... to Public Health."

At a COVID-19 press briefing on Friday, Strang stressed that wastewater testing is still in the research stages and it is not an established tool for understanding COVID-19 spread.

And, he said, it has limitations.

"You could never trace it back and attribute a positive test in the wastewater to any one individual," said Strang.

But a spike of COVID-19 in wastewater samples could be an early warning signal of transmission in a community, he said.

"And then what we would need to do is then bring in, enhance our testing of people within that community to validate that."

When the pilot phase of wastewater testing detected COVID-19 in Wolfville last year, the province increased capacity at the primary assessment centre in the town, and opened pop-up rapid testing sites.