Using Wastewater to Detect COVID-19: OSPE Member Michael Loken, P.Eng.

OSPE Member Michael Loken, P.Eng., Manager of Wastewater Treatment in Greater Sudbury, Ontario, believes in looking for the right solutions in the wrong places. While provinces worked to understand the scale of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a team at Health Sciences North Research Institute (HSNRI), Laurentian University and the City of Greater Sudbury followed the lead of researchers in Amsterdam, Netherlands, who had made a startling discovery: the presence of SARS-coronoavirus-2 in sewage.

Sewage systems – the arteries under every city, ensuring the steady flow of wastewater to treatment plants – contained ribonucleic acid (RNA) fragments that allowed researchers to discover levels of COVID-19. This simple discovery, uncovered after an investigation into an unlikely source, could have long-standing repercussions for pandemic preparation across the globe. The team in Greater Sudbury, following the work already being done in Ottawa and Waterloo, is hoping to advance this research.

Ribonucleic acid, commonly known as RNA, is one of the building blocks of life, alongside DNA and protein. And as Loken notes, it is relatively easy to examine for increased occurrences of COVID-19, which is passed along in human feces, especially in COVID-19 patients who exhibit diarrhea as one of their symptoms. By examining the sewage found in one of these centralized treatment centers, the hope is that COVID-19 can be determined in a population before widespread contagion; for example, it could be a more practical and pro-active solution than testing asymptomatic people.

It was in March 2020 that researchers in the Netherlands began testing wastewater for the virus and discovered their surprising results. The impact was profound, as Loken explains, “Wastewater can be used to flag when outbreaks are going to happen. You can detect an increase in the RNA.”

In the City of Greater Sudbury wastewater treatment facilities under Loken’s management, they are eager to continue testing the runoff and hope that increased attention to this method, leading to newer technologies, can lead to interesting developments. “As with any kind of engineering puzzle, nobody knows how to use this data effectively and powerfully yet. The goal is to get the data, and people will figure out how to use it. The next time we have any type of outbreak we would be able to measure and track it in the community.”

It’s not just Loken’s team that sees the value in this new method either, as the Ontario Government recently announced the allocation of $12.2 million over the next two years to fund the Ontario Wastewater Surveillance Initiative. The purpose of the initiative is to determine whether wastewater surveillance can be used in conjunction with clinical data as a tool to inform a public health response.

Loken’s goal is for teams to be able to identify outbreaks in localized ways. “We’re trying to look for biological markers in excrement. But you don’t generate a lot of that in a single house. It doesn’t contain that valuable genetic information we’re looking for. When it all gets collected, that’s where we’re looking at.” Explaining that currently, they are able to look at samples on a macro level at the major treatment facilities, but that in the future, with the development of localized, portable technologies, testing would not only be able to locate the spread to communities hardest hit, but predict where outbreaks are happening, and to see which communities are particularly vulnerable to outbreaks.

While Loken and his team are supporting the Wastewater Surveillance Initiative, they are hoping to prove the usefulness of other new technologies. “The current method for detection is called PCR analysis, which is incredibly accurate but requires a full lab and a variety of equipment and reagents. The problem is that this isn’t a feasible technique for every community.” What Loken hopes to highlight is the usefulness of MinION by Oxford Nanopore Technologies. The MinION device is roughly the size of a cell phone, requires only a small sample and within a couple of hours creates a full genetic sequencing of the sample.

Loken is hoping that if the MinION proves to be reliable and accurate, it could be an incredibly useful public health tool for remote First Nations or other northern Ontario communities that don’t have access to the wastewater treatment facilities that cities like Sudbury have at their disposal.  

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