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UBC researchers found wastewater samples can track COVID variants in metropolitan areas

Last Updated Jul 12, 2021 at 5:33 pm PDT

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Summary

A new study finds it can be a quick and effective way to track COVID-19 variants within a region -- through human waste

UBC researchers looked at sewage samples from five municipal wastewater plants in Metro Vancouver

The lead researcher says the results line-up quite consistently with clinical numbers from public health

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Researchers at UBC have found a new use for human waste — learning that it can be a quick and effective way to track COVID-19 variants within a region.

Dr. Ryan Ziels is an assistant professor of civil engineering, and the lead on a study that found wastewater genomic testing can quickly and effectively track variants of concern.

“Everybody uses the toilet, so we are essentially passively collecting samples from everybody living in the city in one kind of pooled liquid, if you will,” he tells NEWS 1130.

“Instead of having to collect 2.5 million clinical samples to get an estimate of an abundance of new variants, we can potentially glean that information from just a handful of wastewater samples … so that can provide a rapid signal, if you will, of the abundance of new variants.”

Between February and April of this year, when B.C. was into its third wave of the pandemic, Ziels’ team analyzed sewage samples from five municipal wastewater plants in Metro Vancouver.

“Specifically, we saw that mutations associated with the Alpha and Gamma variants of concern increased in wastewater proportionately to the number of clinically-confirmed cases of those variants within our region.”

And he says the results line up quite consistently with clinical numbers from public health.

“The correlation was very strong between the mutations that we saw in our data, so the frequency of mutations associated with variants, with the weekly abundance of the variants in our region.”

Ziels says wastewater genomic testing can provide something of an early warning system, as his team found in quantifying the amount of coronavirus genome fragments, it forecast fluctuations in hospitalizations and case numbers.

And he insists the goal is to supplement, not replace other testing methods; adding wastewater testing can be useful when clinical testing is difficult or lacking at the municipal level.