Despite the seeming lull in discussions about the continuous spread of COVID-19, the threat of this deadly virus yet lingers. In an effort to remain vigilant, wastewater testing is ongoing in Waterloo Region, showing recent indications of amplified virus presence.
The process begins at the epicentre of Waterloo Region’s COVID-19 wastewater surveillance — the Kitchener Wastewater Treatment Plant. This locale, though ordinary on the surface, serves as a goldmine of data in relation to the virus. As Kristina Lee, a wastewater engineer, elucidates, “Samples are collected five days a week during the workweek”. Though seemingly insignificant, the human wastewater reveals a great deal about the happenings within the confines of a single day.
The samples harvested are then transported to the University of Waterloo, an institution renowned for its expertise in watershed management. Here, an unlikely department has assumed a pivotal role in the battle against the virus. Mark Servos, Canada Research Chair in Water Quality Protection unveils, “We’re actually a fisheries toxicology lab. We study pollution in the Grand River.”
The testing procedure, though extensive, is a crucial element of our defence against the virus. The collected sample undergoes a thorough process of concentration and replication. Using intricate lab techniques, the researchers are able to double the amount of RNA turnings into DNA. In culmination, the sample is amplified and the data gleaned then processed. This exhaustive endeavor allows for accurate quantification of the virus presence in the original sample.
As an upshot of this process, the scientists can ascertain whether the coronavirus is still circulating within the community. Recent public health wastewater surveillance data signifies local intensification of the virus in the past month. Interestingly, it is the XBB variant of Omicron that predominates in wastewater signals. However, it doesn’t reign alone. Another variant, EG.5, has also been detected, with Servos noting, “EG.5 has been here for weeks now in the region, absolutely. It’s in the wastewater.”
With an array of variants present and evolving, the lab acknowledges this worry, coupled with growing concern for additional variants that may emerge as winter approaches. As such, they approach the task of monitoring these variants with grave attention, “We’re concerned that we’re going to see a continuing trend,” expresses Servos.
Gauging the unexpected shifts in policies and habits toward COVID-19 testing during the pandemic, the use of wastewater testing as a means of discerning the true state of affairs regarding the virus seems both prudent and effective. To keep the public informed, Waterloo Region Public Health dutifully discloses the wastewater surveillance data each week via its COVID-19 dashboard.