Researchers with Ontario Tech University are working with Durham Region and other key partners to detect an anticipated second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Ontario Tech University helps industry, community, government, and academic partners uncover innovative solutions for societies’ most pressing problems,” said Dr. Steven Murphy, president and vice-chancellor of Ontario Tech University. “This timely and vital wastewater detection project brings together an incredible wealth of community expertise. Not only will this research directly benefit lives in our community, it also expresses our desire to use tech for good in everything we do.”

Dozens of untreated sewage samples from multiple water pollution control plants in Durham Region will be collected and tested. The samples will be checked for traces of the virus that causes COVID-19. Using this information, a model will be developed for predicting new cases for identifying new coronavirus hot spots in the area. The tracked information will be shared with Durham Region Health Department officials to help determine appropriate steps to limit or prevent further infection in the community.

“Durham Region has a reputation as an innovative and forward-thinking hub; a place where community members work together—via strong partnerships—to enhance our quality of life,” said John Henry, regional chair and chief executive officer of Durham Region. “Together, we will continue collecting tools in our fight against COVID-19.”

COVID-19 can spread rapidly. Many COVID patients are asymptomatic so individuals may transmit the disease before it is detected. The development of state-of-the-art tools for early detection of viruses in wastewater can indicate the severity of infection in a community, mitigating and reducing infection spread.

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The capacity for targeted wastewater sampling near local long-term care homes, for instance, means there will be an early warning system in place for vulnerable populations. The sampling protocol and models will be made available for use by other communities across Canada.

“This innovative research partnership puts Ontario Tech University and Durham Region on the international stage for collaborative COVID-19 research,” said Dr. Les Jacobs, vice president of research and innovation at Ontario Tech University. “The wastewater surveillance project showcases the ground-breaking research our experts are doing right here in Durham Region that positively impacts the lives of all Canadians.”

The made-in-Durham solution includes external financial support, including:

  • $90,000 from Mitacs, a non-profit national research organization that works with academic institutions to meet business challenges with innovative research solutions.
  • $50,000 from the Ontario Clean Water Agency.
  • $30,000 from Cole Engineering Group Ltd.
  • Major in-kind contributions from Durham Region.

“The Ontario Clean Water Agency (OCWA) is a strong supporter of university research projects related to potable water and wastewater innovation,” said Nevin McKeown, president and chief executive officer of the Ontario Clean Water Agency. “The COVID-19 Wastewater Surveillance Research Program proposed by Ontario Tech University is of particular interest to the OCWA and its other partners in this area of research, as it may be useful to inform public health decisions around protecting the public from future outbreaks of this virus.”

The research

Ontario Tech University biological science expert Dr. Andrea Kirkwood (part of Canadian Water Network’s COVID-19 Wastewater Coalition) will lead the sample testing with her Faculty of Science research colleagues Dr. Denina Simmons (Canada Research Chair in Aquatic Biology) and chemistry expert Dr. Jean-Paul Desaulniers.

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After initial tests in Dr. Kirkwood’s lab, Dr. Desaulniers’ lab will measure and quantify viral DNA. Dr. Simmons will look at pharmaceutical and metabolite indicators, and any biomarkers connected to COVID-19 disease symptoms. Ontario Tech mathematician Dr. Greg Lewis and computer scientists on the team will contribute to the predictive mathematical modelling.

Header Image Credit: Region of Durham.

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