Wastewater testing for new COVID variant could be weeks away
Ottawa researchers are racing against the clock to identify the new more contagious strain of SARS-CoV-2 in the city’s wastewater. If all goes well, testing could begin in a matter of weeks.
During the pandemic, Ottawa has become an ad-hoc centre of excellence for tracking the spread of COVID-19 by testing wastewater. Ottawa is the only city in Canada doing daily testing, a collaboration between researchers at CHEO and uOttawa with Ottawa Public Health.
That makes Ottawa well-placed to do some of the urgent work of trying to identify how much of the new, more easily transmissible strain of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, is in the community, said Tyson Graber, an associate research scientist at the CHEO Research Institute.
Graber and uOttawa’s Rob Delatolla lead Ottawa teams that are among groups of researchers across Canada working on tests to identify the new variant through wastewater. They include scientists from the University of Guelph and the Public Health Agency of Canada who are close to having a test.
Graber said he expect there should be an answer to whether the testing methods being developed in Ottawa or elsewhere work within a matter of two or three weeks.
“Things are going to evolve very rapidly,” said Graber. “Everyone is working 24/7 on this.”
Identifying the spread of the variant could be a game-changer as Ontario enters the most deadly stage of the pandemic. On Thursday, Ontario recorded its deadliest day yet from COVID-19, with 89 deaths and 3,519 new cases. Ottawa recorded 164 new cases.
The new variant is 1.7 times more contagious than the original variant, which is raising health concerns around the Globe. It is now dominant in parts of the U.K., where it was first identified. Case numbers and deaths are spiking across the U.K., leading to more restrictions.
In Ontario, just three cases of the variant have been identified — one of them in Ottawa. But it is unclear what the real numbers are because surveillance is, so far, relatively limited.
Graber said wastewater testing to identify the RNA of the variant should be able to detect as few as 10 cases in Ottawa. It is likely that when a test is ready to go, Ottawa will have more cases.
“We know we have at least one case and it is expected there are more,” he said. “If this becomes more prevalent, it is incumbent on us to identify when this variant comes into the population so that public health measures can be changed.”