Research into Covid-19, all in a flush

di Priscilla Pajdo del October 16, 2020

TORONTO - We all do it. It is a necessary part of our bodily function. Scientists around the world have discovered some important information regarding Covid-19 in what we flush down the toilet.

In Ontario, researchers are monitoring wastewater for signs of Covid-19 in various regions. For example, Professor Lawrence Goodridge, is leading a team of researchers in a study at the University of Guelph (UofG), in southwestern Ontario. These studies are not the first of its kind.

For instance, scientists from the Italian National Institute of Health studied samples collected from wastewater in Milan and Rome between February and April 2020. Italy was one of the most affected countries in the early stages of the pandemic.

Results from the Italian study (May 2020), showed the presence of coronavirus genetic material in six out of the 12 samples taken. These studies demonstrated the advantages of monitoring sewage systems for the potential of the virus circulating within a community.

Back at the UofG, the team of researchers are taking samples from the sewer system on and testing for elevated levels of the virus that is shed through human feces. While positive test samples may not indicate there is an active infection in the population, Professor Goodridge said elevated levels may serve as an early warning sign (up to a week prior) that an outbreak may be underway.

An integral part in mitigating the spread of Covid-19 is early detection. Identifying all potential cases can be di.cult since forty percent of people are asymptomatic, according to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. What is interesting about the virus is that for those who are infected, whether or not symptoms are present, viral particles are released through natural biological functions when we eliminate in the bathroom.

More studies are underway at the University of Ottawa and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. Wastewater samples in the region are collected five days a week. They are one of the first communities in North America conducting daily readings.

These samples are immediately tested for levels of the Covid-19 genetic material and results are reported the next morning. This is much faster than the current turnaround time for swab test results that range anywhere from two to six days.

The results of these studies suggest that wastewater testing may serve as a useful tool in detecting potential “hotspots”, (i.e., campuses, health care centres, congregate environments), days earlier than symptoms appear in the community. This way, a.ected areas can take necessary measures, such as targeted testing to identify infection in the population.

The surge in new cases across Ontario has prompted o.cials to roll back the regions of Ottawa, Toronto and Peel into a modified phase two. This has added further pressure on families and businesses still trying to recover from the first wave during the spring.

As citizens continue to face the health and socio-economic affects of Covid-19, the studies into the wastewater system could prove as an early indicator to help target specific areas and implement appropriate safety measures.

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