University of Manitoba research project tests rivers for viruses, including COVID-19

WINNIPEG — A first of its kind research project is underway at the University of Manitoba to try to detect the presence of viruses, including COVID-19, in the Red and Assiniboine Rivers.

“We’re essentially looking for eight human RNA viruses, included SARS-CoV-2,” said 23-year-old graduate student Jhannelle Francis on Tuesday.

Francis moved from Jamaica to Canada to study microbiology. 

For her thesis, she will analyze samples taken from ten sites in Winnipeg. This is the first student in Manitoba to screen wastewater for COVID-19. 

Whenever someone with COVID-19 uses the bathroom, they flush the virus into the sewage system, even if they aren’t showing symptoms. 

While there is no evidence that a person can become infected from water, there is little known about the effect on the ecosystem, said Francis. 

“A lot of studies focus on bacteria (in wastewater),” said Francis. “But not a lot of focus on viruses.”

Francis will begin collecting samples once the ice melts. The project is expected to take two years to complete.

PREDICTING COMMUNITY SPREAD THROUGH WASTEWATER SURVEILLANCE 

Francis hopes her research will also provide insight into the prevalence of COVID-19 in Winnipeg. 

A research team from the University of Ottawa and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO) has been measuring the presence of the coronavirus in wastewater for months. 

Dr. Tyson Graber, an associate research scientist at CHEO, who is part of the project, said this type of testing can act as a “canary in the coal mine.”

“When we saw (rates) go up in the wastewater we could predict… the caseload in the community was also going to go up,” said Graber. 

Last July, scientists were able to predict a surge in cases two days before it showed up in testing.

A growing list of Canadian municipalities have launched similar projects. However, Ottawa is the only jurisdiction in Canada that publishes daily reports on COVID-19 in wastewater. 

This type of surveillance isn’t underway in Manitoba right now. 

Graber said while wastewater screening should not be the only tool for monitoring the spread of COVID-19, it is an effective measure to gauge transmission and help public health officials plan for the future. 

“It’s not going to discriminate based on socio-economic status,” said Graber. “This is capturing an unbiased survey.” 

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