Student Patrick D’Aoust removes a manhole cover next to a wastewater collection station on the University of Ottawa campus Thursday April 8, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Student Patrick D’Aoust removes a manhole cover next to a wastewater collection station on the University of Ottawa campus Thursday April 8, 2021 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

The COVID-19 wasteland: searching for clues to the pandemic in the sewers

A rising ‘poop signal’ is most often a warning days ahead that cases are about to soar

When Ottawa Public Health officials are trying to decide whether restrictions in the city need to tighten up, they look to the normal markers like positive tests, patients in hospital, and outbreaks. But they are also among the few in the country that take cues from the city’s sewers.

Using municipal wastewater to look for evidence of the virus behind COVID-19 is part of a rapidly expanding body of science. The virus is shed in human waste, often before a patient even knows they are sick.

Wastewater testing initiatives were virtually nonexistent in Canada before COVID-19, but there are now more than two dozen universities researching the method. At least seven cities and the Northwest Territories, meanwhile, are already reporting publicly on the wastewater results.

Ottawa’s project, a combined effort from the University of Ottawa and the locally based pediatric health and research centre CHEO, was the first to report the data daily.

A rising “poop signal” — as some on Ottawa’s social media sites have taken to calling it — is most often a warning days ahead that cases are about to soar.

It happened most recently over Easter. Rob Delatolla, a civil engineering professor at the University of Ottawa and one of the brains behind the city’s COVID-19 wastewater project, said the data over the Easter long weekend was not good.

‘They’re going really high, the data points,” he said. “So it’s not the best story, but it kind of reflects, I think, what’s really happening in the city.”

Sure enough, Ottawa’s case numbers went from around 150 to 170 a day last week to more than 250 a day on several occasions in recent days.

Bernadette Conant, Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian Water Network, said the organization created a coalition to help co-ordinate and track all the work that began emerging last spring when the relationship between COVID-19 and wastewater first garnered serious attention.

“The very immediate goal is can it help public health in Canada,” she said.

“We can’t quantify it but we can say, ‘yes it has value.”

In Ottawa, the signal is quoted by real and armchair epidemiologists alike.

Delatolla said researchers are working closely with Ottawa Public Health, and every day he reports the number to Dr. Monir Taha, an associate chief public health officer in the city.

“He uses our wastewater data in his daily reports to the (epidemiology) group at Ottawa Public Health, and often times if we’re late, he’ll send us an email and say, ‘hey, guys is it coming, is everything OK,” said Delatolla.

Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s chief public health officer, quotes the signal’s data it in her tweets, letting Ottawa know it’s time to buckle back down. In early March, Etches said in media interviews that the wastewater was telling her the third wave was upon us.

But the system is not infallible. As Etches was issuing her warning, the poop signal was erroneously suggesting things were getting a lot better.

“We definitely saw the snow melt affect the signal for sure,” said Delatolla.

A combination of factors around the spring melt meant for about two weeks in mid-March the data went all wonky, diluted by extra water, affected by excess salt and sand, and delayed by the city’s new system which holds back some wastewater during the spring so as not to overwhelm the water treatment plant.

Delatolla said things are back on track now.

“What’s so amazing is we’re just a small little lab doing this,” he said. “You think about the 4,000 tests they do a day in Ottawa to get that line. We took one sample, one small, little lab, and were able to get a very similar line. So it shows you the power of using the wastewater.”

It’s also now telling the story of the variants of concern. The team developed a new test to look for the B.1.1.7 mutation first identified in the United Kingdom.

Ottawa has screened more than 1,600 cases of variants so far, but it takes days, if not weeks, to confirm which particular variant is in play.

The wastewater signal is showing that more than half the virus in the sewage is the b.1.1.7 variant.

Researchers have completed a test to look for at least one other variant so far, and they intend to share their efforts with other cities too. Vancouver, Calgary, and Ontario’s Peel region are among the seven other municipalities with wastewater COVID projects.

Conant said the idea for COVID-19 testing grew out of a project in the Netherlands, which pivoted to test for SARS-CoV-2 last winter after already testing waste for other viruses.

An online portal tracking the research run by the University of California Merced shows there are 248 universities studying the idea, along with 70 “dashboards” in 50 countries around the world publishing regular data on COVID-19 in wastewater.

The portal, called “COVIDPoops19,” even has it’s own Twitter account (and an accompanying poop emoji that has come down with a case of the novel coronavirus).

Conant said the future for the research is still being developed, but it is expected it can play a valuable role sussing out trends and outbreaks in high-risk places like long-term care homes and prisons.

Mia Rabson, The Canadian Press

Coronavirus

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Grade 12 LSS student Catherine Sampson, Grade 8 LSS student Cianna Vincent, and LSS Aboriginal Education teacher Brenda Kohlruss led the LSS ceremony honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. (Cole Schisler photo)
Ladysmith Secondary ceremony honours missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls

A small ceremony was held in the LSS foyer on the National Day of Awareness for MMIWG

Peter and Wayne Richmond and 49th Parallel Grocery won the award for Business Achievement 20+ Employees at the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce’s 22nd Black Tie Awards on Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (Submitted)
Ladysmith businesses recognized at Black Tie Awards

Black Tie Awards are given annually by the Duncan Cowichan Chamber of Commerce

Ladysmith’s Town Council met on May 4 and set a 0.52 percent increase for 2021 property taxes. (Town of Ladysmith/YouTube)
Town of Ladysmith adopts 0.52 percent tax increase for 2021

Mayor Aaron Stone praises the increase as among the ‘lowest in the province’

The CVRD introduces new app to contact residents during emergencies. (CVRD photo)
CVRD launches new app to spread information during emergencies

Cowichan Alert is a free app that can be downloaded onto smartphones, computers

RCMP. (Phil McLachlan/Black Press)
Unlawful entry triggers heart condition for Ladysmith woman

An intoxicated man entered the Lavines’ apartment in the middle of the afternoon

Jose Marchand prepares Pfizer COVID-19 vaccination doses at a mobile clinic for members of First Nations and their partners, in Montreal, Friday, April 30, 2021. The National Advisory Committee on Immunization is coming under fire after contradicting the advice Canadians have been receiving for weeks to take the first vaccine against COVID-19 that they’re offered. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
Trudeau says he is glad he got AstraZeneca, vaccines are only way out of pandemic

‘The most important thing is to get vaccinated with the first vaccine offered to you’

B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Dip in COVID-19 cases with 572 newly announced in B.C.

No new deaths have been reported but hospitalized patients are up to 481, with 161 being treated in intensive care

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O���Connell photo)
Clash between loggers, activists halts forestry operations over Fairy Creek

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The courthouse in Nanaimo, B.C. (News Bulletin file)
Island man sentenced in Nanaimo after causing a dog unnecessary pain and suffering

Kiefer Tyson Giroux, 26, of Nanoose Bay, given six-month sentence

Following a one-year pause due to the pandemic, the Snowbirds were back in the skies over the Comox Valley Wednesday (May 5) morning. Photo by Erin Haluschak
Video: Snowbirds hold first training session in Comox Valley in more than 2 years

The team will conduct their training from May 4 to 26 in the area

Solar panels on a parking garage at the University of B.C. will be used to separate water into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter captured to supply a vehicle filling station. (UBC video)
UBC parkade project to use solar energy for hydrogen vehicles

Demonstration project gets $5.6M in low-carbon fuel credits

FILE – A student arrives at school as teachers dressed in red participate in a solidarity march to raise awareness about cases of COVID-19 at Ecole Woodward Hill Elementary School, in Surrey, B.C., on Tuesday, February 23, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
B.C. ‘should be able to’ offer 1st dose of COVID vaccine to kids 12+ by end of June: Henry

Health Canada authorized the vaccine for younger teens this morning

A woman in the Harrison Mills area was attacked by a cougar on Tuesday, May 4. B.C. Conservation Officers killed two male cougars in the area; the attack was determined to be predatory in nature. (File photo)
2 cougars killed following attack on woman in Agassiz area

Attack victim remains in hospital in stable condition

Most Read