That’s where you’ll find early telltale signs of its genetic signature.
University of Alberta water expert Steve Hrudey is helping lead the charge to test for coronavirus at Canada’s water treatment plants.
As chair of the National Research Advisory Group under the Canadian Water Network, he’s spearheading co-ordination of a pilot project to assess the viability of a national COVID-19 wastewater surveillance system.
Hrudey rose to national prominence as a key panel member for the Walkerton Inquiry after E. coli contamination in the Ontario town’s water supply killed seven people and sickened 2,300, almost half the town’s population, in May 2000.
He said the biggest benefit of testing wastewater is that it reveals the presence of the virus even before cases are confirmed in a community, since those who haven’t been tested, with mild or no symptoms, still shed the virus through urine and feces.
Wastewater can also tell you if the virus returns to a municipality after infections appear to diminish.
“The fact you can detect coronavirus when there’s a very low signal in a community suggests it could potentially be an early warning system,” said Hrudey, who is a professor emeritus in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.
Public health experts have been using the technology for decades, partly to gauge the success of vaccination campaigns. The World Health Organization has used it to track polio and SARS.
During the current pandemic, the Dutch used the method early on, finding the virus in some communities with no reported cases. After finding it in cities such as Amsterdam and Utrecht, they looked for the virus in the wastewater of remote towns without any known cases of COVID-19. They found it up to six days before any cases were confirmed.