March 18, 2021
The Ontario government is investing more than $12 million in a new initiative to detect COVID-19 in wastewater. The province is partnering with 13 academic and research institutions to create a surveillance network to test wastewater samples taken from communities across Ontario. This will enhance the ability of local public health units to identify, monitor and manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks. Today, Jeff Yurek, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks, visited the University of Waterloo to tour the labs where wastewater testing is underway. "Monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 gives us a close to real-time way to track the spread of the virus - even before people begin showing symptoms," said Minister Yurek. "Together with clinical and public health data, wastewater monitoring can help local public health units identify potential COVID-19 outbreaks and enable more timely decisions about how and where to mobilize resources in response." The provincial funding builds on work already underway in several municipalities. Wastewater sampling for the early detection of the COVID-19 is taking place in Ottawa, Windsor, Toronto, Casselman, Hamilton and London, as well as the Region of Peel, York Region, Durham Region, Region of Waterloo, and Essex County. The province is also expanding testing to include some First Nation communities, long-term care homes, retirement residences, shelters and correctional facilities. "Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago, our government has been committed to using every resource at our disposal to keep Ontarians safe," said Christine Elliott, Deputy Premier and Minister of Health. "This initiative enhances Ontario's pandemic response by providing valuable data that will help to track and monitor COVID-19 and act as another tool to help stop the spread of this deadly virus in our communities." "Our team's innovative methods for detecting early signs of COVID-19 infections in our communities is an excellent example of the applications of fundamental science. This investment by the provincial government clearly demonstrates its commitment to using Ontario-based scientific strengths, like those at the University of Waterloo, to manage the impacts of COVID-19," said Bob Lemieux, Dean, Faculty of Science, University of Waterloo. "It is extremely rare, and therefore extremely gratifying, to have our research meaningfully impact so many people in Ontario so quickly," said Dr. Alex MacKenzie, Senior Scientist at CHEO Research Institute and Professor of Medicine at University of Ottawa. "The expansion of wastewater surveillance across the province is a testament to both the usefulness and effectiveness of this approach as well as to the creative, multidisciplinary collaboration that is built on a foundation of research excellence, relevance and impact at the CHEO Research Institute and the University of Ottawa. We are truly grateful to the Government of Ontario for making this investment in the health of Ontarians."
In addition to the University of Waterloo and University of Ottawa, the wastewater monitoring initiative is underway at: Ryerson University, Ontario Tech University, University of Guelph, Queen’s University, McMaster University, Carleton University, Health Sciences North Research Institute, University of Toronto, University of Windsor, Trent University and University of Western Ontario.
The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) is also providing technical expertise and equipment to ensure increased testing in sampling locations.
Wastewater sampling measures fragments of the virus (called SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic fragments) that causes COVID-19 infection. These RNA fragments can be shed in the feces of an infected person a few days before, and up to two to three weeks after a person begins to feel ill. However, these RNA fragments are not infectious. The risk of contracting COVID-19 from wastewater is considered to be low.
Wastewater monitoring has been in use for years by scientists and public health officials as a non-invasive way to monitor how diseases are spread within communities.