New website tracks traces of COVID-19 in Calgary's wastewater

Mar 9 2021, 12:30 am

There’s a new way to trace the COVID-19 virus in Calgary.

A collaboration between the University of Calgary, City of Calgary, and Alberta Health Services has made data available that tracks traces of the virus found in the city’s wastewater.

This information can be found on the Centre for Health Informatics (CHI) website, and it shows real-time SARS-CoV-2 RNA (the virus responsible for COVID-19) data for Alberta, including any traces in three different wastewater collection zones in Calgary.

The data can help identify to COVID-19 outbreaks early and determine areas of the city where infection rates are high.

Alberta Health Services is looking at this information as an additional tool to understand how the virus is spreading in the community, as high levels of traces of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater are followed by a rise in clinically diagnosed cases.

According to Dr. Michael Parkins, MD, associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine and section chief for the Division of Infectious Diseases for AHS, “Wastewater data is unbiased and comprehensive.”

“It captures all cases in a defined population, including symptomatic and asymptomatic cases — not just those diagnosed cases,” Parkins continued in a media release.

Wastewater tracing data may even be helpful when government officials are making decisions about what can be reopened safely.

“Policy-makers might be interested to use wastewater tracking in specific locations, where you might be able to pick up on the outbreaks earlier and limit the spread,” says Danielle Southern, senior researcher at CHI.

“The wastewater could give us some predictive tools. Say you’re seeing it in a high school, that means it’s probably out in your community, whereas if it’s in a hospital, those people are likely constrained to that one place.”

Those interested can visit the Centre for Health Informatics online, where they’ll find a map of Calgary that’s been divided up into three areas, based on the collection zones for each City of Calgary water treatment plant.

The map is placed beside a graph with data points tracking any traces of SARS-CoV-2 found in wastewater on a chosen date, going as far as July 2020, when researchers started gathering samples.

“Each data point represents a 24-hour period, where a 100 ml sample is taken every 15 minutes to generate a 10-litre sample,” says Parkins. “We then test to look for evidence of the SARS-CoV-2 RNA genetic material.”

The CHI tracks a number of other datasets, including COVID-19 outbreak proportions in Alberta, variants of the virus in the province, and weekly deaths by age group.

This tracking has been expanded over the past 11 months, based on questions the CHI has received from policy-makers and government officials.

“Originally it was, ‘what measures should we put in place?’, and now it’s shifted to, ‘what can we re-open safely?’” says Southern.

Researchers hope to soon be able to share more precise information from location-specific sampling.

“Wastewater testing has tremendous potential to help keep our communities safe, and catch outbreaks before they reach critical mass,” says Parkins. “The further we can take this research, the better.”

Elle McLeanElle McLean

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