Vancouver – A new initiative, dubbed SAFEGUARD, aims to transform monitoring for viruses and other pathogens in British Columbia, offering early and enhanced surveillance to better prepare the province and Canada for future public health challenges.

Traditionally, monitoring infections has relied on testing people who are sick, a method that is not only expensive but also only captures data from people who seek medical care. Recognizing the need to expand surveillance, public health organizations are turning to wastewater surveillance as an unbiased approach to help understand the impact of disease on a whole community — an important addition to the tool kit.

SAFEGUARD unites experts from the BC Centre for Disease Control, the University of British Columbia, the BC Provincial Health Officer, the BC Ministry of Health and the National Microbiology Laboratory on an innovative and comprehensive wastewater surveillance program, thanks to federal and provincial funding support through Genome Canada and Genome British Columbia.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, wastewater surveillance emerged as a valuable early warning system, giving clarity about disease spread, confirming the spread of variants of concern and uncovering novel variants. Wastewater surveillance provides information about disease rates in an entire community while being more cost effective than testing large numbers of people, making it a practical tool for improving surveillance data and public health responsiveness, particularly in underserved communities.

While existing wastewater surveillance programs in Canada have primarily focused on SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, SAFEGUARD significantly expands this approach. The project team plans to implement genomics based surveillance targeting a wide range of respiratory pathogens. This innovative effort will integrate genomic data with epidemiological information, enabling advanced statistical modelling to guide crucial public health decision-making.

This project was part of an announcement made by the Honourable François-Philippe Champagne, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, introducing more than $41 million, including co-funding, in support of eight new genomics research projects funded through Genome Canada’s Genomic Applications Partnership Program (GAPP). GAPP supports downstream research and development projects addressing real world opportunities and challenges by translating genomics innovations into tangible applications, solutions and products.

“SAFEGUARD addresses the immediate challenge of characterizing circulating respiratory viruses at the community scale, which is so important at this time of year. This initiative also lays the groundwork for public health infrastructure that is more resilient and responsive to emerging threats.” — Dr. Natalie Prystajecky, Program head for the Environmental Microbiology program at the BC Centre for Disease Control’s Public Health Laboratory.

“Genomics was a key tool for surveillance during the pandemic and will continue to be crucial in understanding future public health trends. By leveraging the power of this technology, we aim to provide earlier detection, more precise data, and improved public health strategies for a range of pathogens, all things essential to providing effective, evidence-based public health guidance.” — Dr. Bonnie Henry, Provincial Health Officer, Province of British Columbia


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