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CHEO and the U of O have partnered with the City of Ottawa to work on a ‘shitty’ research project dealing with local sewage

Way back in the spring, when COVID-19 was just in its first wave, University of Ottawa researchers began to look into ways that they could detect and quantify the virus. Eventually, they found the solution, and it went quite literally down the drain from there.

Researchers at the U of O partnered with Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) and the city to begin work on a wastewater research project that would allow them to detect and amplify the RNA of the virus and use it to find COVID-19 hotspots around Ottawa. 

The project is not new globally, Australia and the Netherlands have been working on similar projects, with the Dutch ramping up the research project to national levels back in March and April. When researchers at the University heard about it, they began work to see if it could be used here, however, the labs on campus were closed. So, they reached out to other labs to see if any could work and CHEO opened their labs to them.

Tyson Graber, an associate researcher with CHEO, was one of the first researchers in Ottawa to begin implementing the testing locally, noting that the project is a scientist’s dream. 

“There is no formal agreement right now, it’s very much a research collaboration. As scientists, this is great right now,” said Graber.

“This is about as pure science as you can get, there aren’t many roadblocks in the way. And it’s really great to be in this atmosphere where everyone is very collegial and sharing data.”

The process is very labouring, a 12 hour day for the current group of U of O graduate students working with researchers on the project. 

“In cooperation with the city and their wastewater people, they go down there every morning and collect a single sample, bring it back to the lab, and start the process,” Graber said. They then can begin looking into ways to amplify the RNA to make the COVID virus detectable through a process called polymerase chain reaction testing, or PCR.

“It can be somewhat tricky, because wastewater, as you can imagine, has a lot of fecal content and whatever else you put down the drain,” he said. “And it can wreak havoc with the PCR method. So we need ways to try to get that needle out of the haystack.” 

According to an email interview with Ottawa Public Health (OPH), they are taking into account any information gathered from the research project into their daily COVID decisions. 

“The data source has been added to the COVID-19 statistics section on our website, and we are considering this data as part of many other factors in our daily decision-making,” wrote a  spokesperson for OPH. 

This goes along with a recent statement from medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches, where she stated that Ottawa has the highest rate of infection in all of Ontario. “Ottawa, we have been through so much together these last seven months. But I am hopeful that the recent spike in cases is something we can change.”

“This is very exciting! Our overall goal was to develop an epidemiological tool to identify the prevalence of the virus and identify significant increases of the virus in communities ahead of an outbreak,” wrote Robert Delatolla, associate professor in the faculty of engineering and study co-lead in a U of O press release.

Graber says that they’ve seen a lot of success in detecting the virus, with testing now occurring daily. Etches echoed this in her statement. “Just recently, the wastewater data is suggesting that the virus is spreading in our community faster than it is being picked up by people going for testing,” she wrote. 

The next step is drilling into neighbourhoods to pinpoint even more exact data. “The more metrics or measurements you have done different ways, if they all point in the same way you can be more and more confident that this is what happens, this is the ground truth,” Graber said.

“We can also use this as an unbiased survey of the population. Our wastewater plant collects about 90 per cent of the population here in Ottawa, so at the end of the day people are contributing to this survey, and we can see whether you’re presymptomatic, asymptomatic, or you have COVID-19,” he said.

In Etches statement, she continues to urge people to follow COVID-19 health warnings and protocols to stay safe, especially as the numbers rise once again in Ottawa. 

“Both our testing and wastewater data are telling us the same thing: we need to bring the level of COVID-19 in the community down to avoid an increase in people testing positive in long-term care homes, keep hospitalizations down and to keep our schools open,” she wrote. 

Graber agrees with this. “Heed the public health unit warnings, and the data coming out of this project re-iterates how important it is to, you know, wear your mask, wash your hands, physically distance, etc.”