June 26, 2020

UCalgary, The City of Calgary and AHS team up in the fight against COVID-19

Wastewater samples will help identify local outbreaks, fast

A faster way to detect clusters of COVID-19 infection in the population is critical to avoiding future outbreaks — and what’s going down your drain could help public health officials catch outbreaks sooner.

UCalgary researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine, Faculty of Science, and Schulich School of Engineering; Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA), The City of Calgary, and Alberta Health Services (AHS) have teamed up to test Calgary wastewater for early signs of COVID-19 cases. The team has received Canadian Institutes of Health Research funding to pursue the research, beginning immediately.

The group will be analyzing wastewater from The City of Calgary’s wastewater treatment plants as well as samples collected from various locations in the wastewater collection system to find areas where active cases of COVID-19 are beginning to appear.

“This study will not only monitor for signs of COVID-19 cases at wastewater treatment plants, we’re also moving further up in the pipes, closer to where people are flushing their toilets, in order to find neighbourhoods at risk,” says Dr. Michael Parkins, MD, associate professor in the departments of Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is excreted in the feces of those who are pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic, as well as those with overt symptoms. This will potentially allow us to identify cases before they’re clinically evident.” While researchers can find traces of the virus in the wastewater, wastewater does not transmit it.

The project goes beyond confirming whether or not a community has active cases of COVID-19.

“Our objective is to identify ‘hot spots’ by looking for high concentrations of traces of the virus in wastewater in neighbourhoods,” says Dr. Casey Hubert, PhD, associate professor and leader of the Geomicrobiology Group in the Department of Biological Sciences. “Results will be shared with health officials to inform how they focus their resources. It’s a complementary strategy of looking in the wastewater for evidence of infection, instead of putting all the burden on the medical system.”

City infrastructure has potential to provide valuable insight

“A key differentiator on this project is our partnership with The City through the Urban Alliance,” says Kevin Frankowski, executive director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA). “Our wastewater infrastructure is a practical City asset that has become a valuable source of public health information.”

Frankowski likens the wastewater system to the circulatory system in the human body. Like the capillaries that lead to progressively larger veins that eventually lead to the heart, the  wastewater system is made up of small pipes that lead to progressively larger trunk lines that flow toward one of The City’s three wastewater treatment plants.

“In medicine, it’s well established that monitoring the bloodstream is an important diagnostic tool. We’re going to do the same with wastewater,” Frankowski says.

How does it work?

Detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater starts with a sample. With assistance from The City of Calgary, samples are gathered from the wastewater collection system in different areas of the city.

“City staff have the detailed knowledge of the wastewater collection system at the community level and have the expertise to collect the composite samples necessary for this initiative,” explains Dr. Norma Ruecker, PhD, leader of Microbiology in Water Quality Services at The City of Calgary. “It made complete sense to partner with the University of Calgary and Alberta Health Services to advance our knowledge in wastewater-based epidemiology in the fight against this virus.”

Wastewater is a complex mix of liquids and solids — everything that has gone down your sink drains, bathtubs, and toilets flows into shared sewer pipes. Before the wastewater sample can be tested for evidence of COVID-19, it goes to ACWA for initial processing, and then on to UCalgary geomicrobiology and clinical microbiology labs.

Lab teams will then analyze the sample for traces of the virus’s genetic material.

In parallel to the wastewater testing, AHS will provide the team with up-to-date case data to validate the research. In later phases of the project, AHS will advise on communities of concern so wastewater testing can be deployed in those areas.

“By working together across infrastructure, clinical and research fields we are better positioned to obtain and analyze data much faster, which will have a direct impact on potential public health strategies,” says Dr. Jia Hu, MD, medical officer of health, AHS, Calgary Zone.

CIHR funding and powerful partnerships make project possible

“Support from CIHR has enabled this group to increase the scale of their project and quickly mobilize a multi-disciplinary team of experts,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “We are thrilled that our partnerships with The City of Calgary and Alberta Health Services can be leveraged for this innovative approach to mitigate the impacts of COVID-19.”

“This is a four-part collaboration which would fall down without each of the individual members involved,” says Parkins. “ACWA and the Urban Alliance make this the perfect place to do this research. It’s an opportunity to get out in front of SARS-CoV-2, and we have great potential to help Calgary stay ahead of a second wave.”

Michael Parkins is an associate professor in the departments of Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases.

Casey Hubert is an associate professor in the department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science and Campus Alberta Innovates Program Chair in Geomicrobiology.

Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) is a globally unique test bed and research facility where researchers, municipalities and industry can de-risk wastewater treatment and monitoring technologies. It is a partnership between the University of Calgary and The City of Calgary, as part of the Urban Alliance.