New Fredericton made test detects COVID-19 in wastewater

·3 min read

New surveillance technology developed by LuminUltra, a Fredericton-based company, will help communities search for and detect the presence of COVID-19 in their wastewater, says chairman and CEO Pat Whalen.

The company worked on the testing and research with Dalhousie University and Halifax Water and it shows the new surveillance technology can test human wastewater and give communities early warnings.

It can even narrow down the presence of coronavirus to a single neighbourhood or a street.

Whalen said the idea came as a way to get ahead of a coronavirus outbreak before it spread.

"The reality is that waiting to test the symptomatic people, by the time we get those results, it's already kind of too late. It costs us days and weeks of getting out in front of potential clusters or outbreaks."

In April, LuminUltra signed a contract with the federal government to provide enough chemicals for 500,000 tests a week for COVID-19 for the next year.

Whalen said they started looking at what was being done around the world, particularly in Europe where there was more research and emphasis on the concept of environmental monitoring, looking for traces of the virus in the environment.

"So we started developing products for testing surfaces and air, and we partnered with Dalhousie University to develop a new methodology, something that would be faster, cheaper and more widely available to be able to test sewage as well."

Simple test

Whalen said being able to shave a few days off in finding the location of the virus allowed quicker isolation. Then necessary approaches to testing and contact tracing and other remedial measures were undertaken.

The test is simple, he said.

"You collect a sample of sewage, whether it's out of wastewater treatment plant or under a manhole cover, and take that to a laboratory."

LuminUltra Technologies Ltd.
LuminUltra Technologies Ltd.

Whalen said the test is very similar to tests used on swabs taken from people, and the results are known in a few hours. Very little of the virus is needed for the test to detect it.

"There's indication that we can detect as low as one case out of [the wastewater of] a thousand people. So we're literally able to find a needle in a haystack."

Isolating it to single neighbourhoods or single streets comes from tracing back through the sewage network.

"You can almost trace up the line. So it really comes down to just getting the sample at the appropriate location and then doing the test and boom, you have your information."

From there Public Health would determine the next steps, but Whalen said in principle testing could begin on people within that neighborhood, within a facility, building whatever it may be that might be infected with COVID-19.

"So it allows you to get out in front of it that much faster. "

Global interest

Some Canadian cities are already doing this kind of testing, including Saskatoon and Ottawa. Both cities are expecting a rise in cases after testing wastewater in recent days.

Whalen said since he announced his product two weeks ago, there has been a lot of interest from around the globe.

"We're doing a webinar on this in two or three days, and the subscription rate to that webinar is about ten times higher than the average webinar we've done in the past."

Interested buyers can purchase the piece of equipment and test kits they need.

"All of these things are made right here in Fredericton and it's something we've been doing for a very long time."

Production has been ramped up and Whalen said they expect to start selling the product in the next couple of weeks.

The tests cost about $30 to $40, which is cheaper than some of the traditional methods being used to monitor COVID or other viruses and wastewater which are ten times more.

"So it's quite a bit cheaper," Whalen said.