WINDSOR, ONT. -- The City of Windsor is taking part in an initiative to test local wastewater for evidence of COVID-19.

City officials say it could help provide an early indicator if virus cases are increasing in the community.

Wastewater samples are being taken from the Lou Romano and Little River Pollution Control plants and then analyzed by a team led by Mike McKay, executive director and professor at the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research (GLIER) at the University of Windsor in cooperation with Ontario biotech company S.M. Research, Inc.

Testing has shown evidence that the genetic signal for COVID-19 can be detected in Windsor’s untreated wastewater.

McKay says this research follows on a long partnership between GLIER and Pollution Control in Windsor.

“Pivoting and extending our expertise and resources to wastewater monitoring, we are confident that the approach will be a valuable tool to public health and may provide an early alert to a second wave of infections in the community,” said McKay, adding that many infections may go undetected.

“I like to think of the sewer system as a non-invasive ‘community swab,’ providing a glimpse into the collective health of those living in the community.”

Experts say the science to monitor wastewater for COVID-19 is still in its infancy, but it is showing promise.

“Our staff are equipped with and trained in the use of personal protective equipment and know how to work safely with wastewater containing viruses and pathogens,” said senior manager of pollution control Jake Renaud. “If we can use wastewater testing to help in the fight against COVID-19, we’re happy to do it.”

The city wants residents to know this testing takes place at the untreated stage of wastewater treatment, before it proceeds to our advanced multi-stage filtration system and research has shown that the COVID-19 virus is effectively inactivated in the wastewater treatment disinfection process.

City officials say the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit is supportive of the project.