HSN researchers mark one year of detecting COVID-19 in northern wastewater
This week marked one year since researchers at Health Sciences North started to test wastewater in the region for COVID-19.
Experts at the Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI) are now looking at the results for several communities across the northeast, including Sudbury, North Bay, Sault Ste. Marie and the Porcupine region (Timmins, Kapuskasing and Moosonee.)
They've also been monitoring the output from Laurentian University.
In the last few days, they've noticed a downward trend in COVID-19 levels, which could indicate the northeast has hit a plateau.
"The idea is … everything that will go out of our system is collected in the wastewater and if you have some way to measure it, you can find out the concentration of the thing you want to measure," said researcher Gustavo Ybazeta.
"We are using a technique able to amplify the signal of the remnants of the RNA that's basically the signature of the (COVID-19) virus in the wastewater."
Ybazeta used last month's spike with the Omicron variant as an example.
"Numbers that we obtained through the wastewater, they were going through the roof in some places," he said. "We were seeing numbers up to that we hadn't even seen in previous waves."
It's work that's helping public health officials do their job and is now more important than ever, given how Ontario recently changed its PRC testing guidelines.
"The testing system right now is down at the Kelly Lake wastewater treatment plant, so it's taking all the wastewater from all of Sudbury, all of New Sudbury and we can watch the trends working with that," said Burgess Hawkins, from Public Health Sudbury and Districts.
Public Health Sudbury and Districts, the City of Greater Sudbury and the researchers are working collaboratively to try and come up with a way where they can publish the results in a manner that's easy to understand.
Several cities have already started to routinely publish findings, including Ottawa.
"The trend lines are pretty obvious but they don't always give you an A equals B correlation," said Hawkins, who said the health unit wants to see the data published.
In the past year, the team at Health Sciences North made a lot of improvements to the procedure with Ontario's consortium of testing sites. For example, what used to take them 10-12 hours to get results, may take 6-8 hours now.
"We share our best results and techniques with other labs and look at how other labs are doing their results," said Ybazeta. "We're trying to produce the best measurement of this signature and we're getting better."
"People are getting very tired in the lab because it's been a long year, but we're very happy to share this data, to do what we can to beat this pandemic," he added.
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