Evaluating the persistence of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) in the urban water cycle

Mckay, Robert | $50,000

Ontario University of Windsor 2020 NSERC Alliance COVID-19 Grant

Novel coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is an acute respiratory disease which first came to the attention of the World Health Organization in early 2020. The pathogen responsible for COVID‑19 is SARS-CoV-2, a member of the coronavirus family. Recent research from three continents has demonstrated the presence of SARS-CoV-2 in sewage from wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) consistent with the virus being shed in feces. Based on this evidence, we hypothesize that SARS-CoV-2 will be detected in the influent of municipal WWTPs in Canada. While it is generally assumed that conventional wastewater treatment effectively reduces viral load, the efficacy of treatment in removing SARS-CoV-2 is not known. Even if wastewater treatment is successful, many municipalities experience plant bypass events whereby untreated or partially treated sewage is discharged directly into receiving waters. In these cases, it is not known how long SARS-CoV-2 will persist in the environment if released from WWTP effluent. Working with our partners at the Town of Lakeshore, ON and the Town of Amherstburg, ON, we will address two research objectives:

1) to assess trends/changes in occurrence of community infection from sewage surveillance

2) to evaluate persistence of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater effluent:

a. using surrogate phage

b. during a bypass event

Information gained from this study will inform municipalities on best practices in wastewater treatment to address the safety of our water supply and build capability to address future pandemics. Data on viral load in influent will provide a proxy to assess trends in community infections in lieu of widescale testing of individuals and will provide early warning to a possible ‘second wave’ of infection. The partnership also offers opportunities to test hypotheses related to persistence of SARS-CoV-2 on occasions when it is discharged to the environment, in this case Lake St. Clair and the binational Detroit River Great Lakes Area of Concern.

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