As average levels of coronavirus found in Ottawa’s wastewater hit record highs and case numbers climb across the country, a wastewater surveillance project in Nova Scotia may soon see its funding renewed.
Launched last January, the goal of the research project was to track the presence of COVID-19 in Nova Scotia wastewater to help researchers more quickly identify the SARS-CoV-2 virus before it can spread. That project is winding down.
In addition to measuring levels at four Halifax wastewater facilities — Eastern Passage, Mill Cove, Dartmouth and Halifax — the research team began a wastewater monitoring program at Dalhousie University residences in September.
While unwilling to provide the most recent data from Halifax wastewater sampling, lead researcher Graham Gagnon explained that during previous pandemic waves, the municipality tended to follow similar wastewater trend patterns as other major Canadian cities.
“I would say it’s generally consistent,” Gagnon said.
“Maybe we’re a week ahead or maybe we’re a week behind, but by and large, most of the Canadian municipalities are (similar). People are flying across our country now and so it’s not like anyone’s really isolated from SARS-CoV-2. So the patterns are broadly similar.”
Through their feces, people infected with COVID-19 shed a form of genetic material called ribonucleic acid (RNA) that is specific to the virus. This can be found in human wastewater.
Because the virus survives longer in the gastrointestinal tract than the respiratory tract, wastewater can be used to determine the presence of COVID-19 before someone has symptoms, gets a positive test, or if they’re an asymptomatic carrier.
Gagnon described wastewater surveillance as scientifically sound in its predictability and ability to detect SARS-CoV-2 and its variants.
“Would it give a better signal than nasal swabs? I’m sure there’s probably active research on that. I haven’t seen anything. I think certainly compared to antigen tests it’s certainly stronger,” he said.
“And the measurements we use is a qPCR-based method, so the same type of strategy that the PCR method would be for the nasal swabs, so the accuracy would be as consistent in that regard.”
Gagnon said they’ve created a passive sampling device that’s made it “very effective” to measure wastewater at Dalhousie University’s residences. They’ve also started working with different partners to improve their ability to measure not only SARS-CoV-2 variants, but other viruses like Norwalk and influenza that might show up in wastewater.
“Our labs are very focused on trying to get the technology as simple as it can be so that any user, whether you’re in Cape Breton or southwest Nova Scotia, you don’t have to be in Halifax to measure,” Gagnon said.
“That’s been kind of the goal, to make it as robust as possible so that it’s not limited to only university labs.”
The team is also working on adapting their technology to measure algae in lakes.
Unlike in Ottawa, where there’s a coordinated public health delivery model between public health, university researchers and the wastewater treatment facility, Gagnon and his research team don’t work directly with public health.
“Our project was never really set up that way. It’s not to say that public health doesn’t know we’re doing this. They are well aware that we’re collecting samples,” Gagnon said.
“But our data is not necessarily feeding into a decision-making process in the way that would be described in the Ottawa Public Health setting.”
Gagnon said while he could see their wastewater surveillance data being used to help inform public health decision-making, he believes public health officials have sound reasons for not doing so.
In an email, provincial Department of Health and Wellness spokesperson Marla MacInnis didn’t rule out the possibility of using wastewater surveillance in the future. She pointed to the national consortium on wastewater COVID-19 surveillance to which the Dalhousie University research group belongs.
“Public Health and our NSH laboratory colleagues are connected with the Dalhousie group but their work is still considered to be in the research phase and needs to be further validated before it can be used as a surveillance tool,” MacInnis wrote.
“We will continue to work locally, and as part of the national consortium, on the potential for ongoing wastewater surveillance as part of our long term COVID surveillance.”
Gagnon expects to share the project’s dashboard online in the coming weeks as this phase of the project wraps up.
But there’s hope on the horizon for more Research Nova Scotia funding.
On March 16, the province announced $25 million for the Research Opportunities Fund managed by Research Nova Scotia. That organization’s CEO, Stefan Leslie, said the funding will be used for a mix of new and existing projects.
Leslie added that they’re “in active discussions” and he’s “very optimistic” about the likelihood of additional funding for the wastewater research project.
“Our view is that when we find good research that’s producing good results, then we look to see what additional work can be done afterwards so that we make the most of that investment,” Leslie said in an interview.
“The wastewater project has certainly been really valuable from a scientific discovery point of view, also from potential application to managing COVID, but frankly, other diseases or pathogens of concern as well. It’s one of those great projects that starts in one place, you learn things, and you can continue to grow and adapt, and that’s the kind of project we look to continue working with.”
The wastewater project team’s partners include Halifax Water, Research Nova Scotia, LuminUltra, Nova Scotia Health (NSH), and Dalhousie University.
The Nova Scotia COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance dashboard was made public late Wednesday afternoon. It shows results for several months and can be found here. It blends results from the four wastewater treatment plants, but doesn’t include results from sites tested with the passive sampling device the project developed.