Heather Buckley UVic
Researcher Heather Buckley (UVic)

A team of University of Victoria researchers is partnering with a local tech firm to develop a new sewage monitoring system they say will help detect and track COVID-19 outbreaks.

The researchers say that analyzing wastewater from communities can be a faster way to collect data than current person-to-person testing methods.

Because genetic material from COVID-19 is found in the stool of infected people, this method could enable a faster public health response by detecting infections before people are symptomatic.

The University says that three of its engineering researchers are working with Pani Energy Inc. to report to public health authorities on data from wastewater plants across B.C., starting with Greater Victoria this month.

“Having this predictive tool will be a real game changer, both in terms of responding to a second wave of COVID-19, as well as to other pathogen outbreaks over the longer term,” said Heather Buckley, a civil engineering researcher.

“Victoria is currently at a near-zero point with COVID-19, so any data we can collect now provides us with a baseline against which we can compare when the virus returns.”

The research team includes Buckley, Stephanie Willerth, chair of UVic’s Biomedical Engineering program, and Caetano Dorea, head of the Public Health and Environmental Engineering lab.

Other research teams across Canada and around the globe are also exploring wastewater monitoring as a way to more quickly identify COVID-19 hotspots.

The team at UVic says that this monitoring is particularly important as governments move to lift restrictions and people return to work.

They also argue that the project’s applications can extend beyond the current pandemic to detect other pathogens in wastewater and help with future public health issues and emergencies.

The project is funded by a grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.