It’s a daily number that, in the words of CHEO CEO Alex Munter, “some people check more than the weather forecast.”
Now Ottawa’s wastewater monitoring program, pioneered by scientists at CHEO and the University of Ottawa, has been honoured as one of the best public health innovations of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The award from the Innovation Fund Provincial Oversight Committee doesn’t have the glamour of Oscar night — “And the winner is … Measurement of SARS-CoV-2 Protein and RNA in Wastewater; Real-Time Measurement of Community Viral Load!”
But the method developed by Dr. Alex MacKenzie at CHEO and co-leads Tyson Graber, a cellular biologist also from CHEO, and uOttawa’s Rob Delatolla, an engineer with an expertise in wastewater systems, has become an essential tool in the fight against COVID-19. Since December, when Ontario restricted who could get tested for COVID, the wastewater surveillance program has become an invaluable way to measure the pandemic’s spread.
The “game-changing” method is now used by all 34 public health units in Ontario, covering 80 per cent of the population. Wastewater sampling also helps track outbreaks in long-term care homes and jails.
“As a scientist, you can get very cynical because 90 per cent of what you try doesn’t work,” said Graber, who was brought on board the team a few weeks into the study because of his expertise in RNA molecules, a marker for the SARS coronavirus. “And you usually don’t see applications for your research in your lifetime. So it’s really comforting to see that this can be used for the public good.”
Graber credited the “amazing, collegial” team in Ottawa for the success of the program, which also co-operated with researchers in the Netherlands and Australia to fine tune its methods.
“We’re quite proud of the fact that we were the first Canadian team and one of the first labs in the world to come up with this methodology,” he said.
“We can see and follow that signal over time and we can see that it correlates really well with cases and hospitalizations. There’s still a lot of learning involved and there’s still a lot we don’t understand. But it’s really quite remarkable how quickly it’s come together and how well it works.”
While Graber described the testing method itself as “fairly straightforward,” the difficulty is understanding how to apply it in different cities. What works in Ottawa is different from, say, Hamilton, where industrial wastewater can mask or neutralize the markers of COVID-19.
Graber said it took a few months to find a reliable methodology: “That’s long in ‘pandemic time,’ but in ‘science time’ that’s really fast.”
The project was funded with seed money from the IFPOC program and has grown into a $12-million provincial system.
“Even back in December, the thought that wastewater would be a key indicator for decision makers was just unfathomable,” Graber said.
The team is continuing to refine its methods and find new roles for wastewater testing. Eventually they hope to differentiate between virus that’s coming from people who are infected from what’s being shed by people who already have immunity. That could help public health official decide when to begin vaccination programs, he said. They’re also looking to see if it can be used for other illnesses, such as influenza.
It’s all been an exciting journey for Graber, who was doing cancer research at the beginning of the pandemic.
“This has been my pandemic shift,” he said. “It’s a totally new field. There’s lots to explore. I never thought in a million years I’d be looking at poop.”