WINDSOR, ONT. -- The University of Windsor’s COVID-19 sewage surveillance project is receiving some funding help from the Ontario government.

UWindsor researchers are looking at sewage as an early warning system for COVID-19 outbreaks. The project is receiving $540,000 in funding as part of a new provincial wastewater surveillance system co-ordinated by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading a team that has been collecting and testing weekly samples of wastewater from Windsor, Leamington, Amherstburg, Lakeshore, London, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, and Thunder Bay.

McKay’s project, launched early in the pandemic, was among the first in the province and is now part of a network of Ontario labs monitoring sewage for SARS-CoV-2.

The Ontario government has announced it is investing more than $12 million to support and expand the network. The province is partnering with 13 academic and research institutions across Ontario to enhance the ability of local public health units to identify, monitor, and manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

“Monitoring wastewater for COVID-19 gives us a close-to-real-time way to track the spread of the virus— even before people begin showing symptoms,” said Jeff Yurek, Minister of the Environment, Conservation and Parks. “Together with clinical and public health data, wastewater monitoring can help local public health units identify potential COVID-19 outbreaks and enable more timely decisions about how and where to mobilize resources in response.”

University officials say the new provincial funding builds on research already underway, expanding to some First Nation communities, long-term care homes, retirement residences, shelters, and correctional facilities.

McKay said studies have shown that a significant proportion of people with active COVID-19 infections shed the virus in their stool before symptoms start. Since many people infected with virus are asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms and never seek medical care or are tested, detecting the virus’s genetic material in wastewater is a good indicator of the true infection rate in the community, McKay explained.

McKay’s group is collecting samples from sewers on UWindsor’s campus to monitor the health of students living in residence. It is part of a broader campus screening initiative that will include a COVID-19 dashboard to inform the campus community of testing results.

McKay is co-ordinating the project with Mitacs-funded post-doctoral fellow Qiudi Geng and research associate Ryland Corchis-Scott. Engineering professors Rajesh Seth and Nihar Biswas are overseeing the sampling of local sewers and biochemist Yufeng Tong and molecular biologist Lisa Porter are overseeing campus screening initiatives.

The team recently began collaborating with UWindsor biochemist Kenneth Ng, who is studying SARS-CoV-2 variants.

“The team recognizes the power of tapping into the wastewater stream as a tool for discovery of SARS-CoV-2 variants,” McKay said. “In fact, we are already testing for the B.1.1.7 variant of concern in our wastewater samples from Windsor-Essex and samples are sent weekly to the Public Health Agency of Canada’s National Microbiology Lab for sequencing analysis.”