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

A B.C. Centre for Disease Control map showing new COVID-19 cases by local health area for the week of April 25-May 1. (BCCDC image)
Vancouver Island’s COVID-19 case counts continue to trend down

Fewer than 200 active cases on the Island, down from highs of 500-plus earlier this spring

Strathcona Gardens is one of many recreation opportunities that could be investigated during a feasibility study. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Strathcona rural and municipal directors disagree on recreation study

Rural directors say study would not affect them, don’t want to pay for it

Red dresses hang on the Longhouse at Campbell River’s Robert Ostler Park on May 5, which is designated as Red Dress Day to commemorate murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. A gathering at the Longhouse was held to mark the day and the MMWIG. Photo by Alistair Taylor/Campbell River Mirror
VIDEO: Campbell River gathering commemorates murdered and missing women and girls

Red Dress Day marked by ceremony at Robert Ostler Park

City of Campbell River crews work to repair a four-inch water main near Carihi Secondary School. Photo by Marc Kitteringham, Campbell River Mirror
Main break leaves Campbell River neighbourhood without water

Students sent home early from Carihi Secondary, businesses closed

The arena at Strathcona Gardens could be in the running for the 2022 Kraft Hockeyville competition. File photo – Campbell River Mirror
Strathcona Gardens eyes 2022 Kraft Hockeyville competition

Winner gets to host a pre-season NHL game and $250,000 to help fix their arena

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

The Canadian Coast Guard icebreaker Louis S. St-Laurent sails past a iceberg in Lancaster Sound, Friday, July 11, 2008. The federal government is expected to end nearly two years of mystery today and reveal its plan to build a new, long overdue heavy icebreaker for the Canadian Coast Guard. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Vancouver, Quebec shipyards to each get new heavy icebreaker, cost remains a mystery

Vancouver’s Seaspan Shipyards and Quebec-based Chantier Davie will each build an icebreaker for the coast guard

Findings indicate a culture of racism, misogyny and bullying has gripped the game with 64 per cent of people involved saying players bully others outside of the rink. (Pixabay)
Misogyny, racism and bullying prevalent across Canadian youth hockey, survey finds

56% of youth hockey players and coaches say disrespect to women is a problem in Canada’s sport

Most Read