Using wastewater to detect a new wave of COVID-19 infections before it happens is the focus of a University of Guelph research project receiving $50,000 in federal funding.

Engineering professor Ed McBean will receive a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) of Canada grant to measure levels of SARS-CoV-2, the disease-causing virus, in community wastewater systems.

“Since COVID-19 is shed in the feces of infected people, the opportunity to use surveillance of wastewater to understand the extent of the COVID-19 virus within cities is enormous,” said McBean, formerly Senior Canada Research Chair in Water Supply Security. “This research is assessing the necessary and critical protocols needed to allow a community to gain important, evidence-based knowledge regarding carriers of the COVID-19 virus.”

McBean is working with food science professor Lawrence Goodridge, an expert in food- and water-borne pathogens, and with Stantec, a design and consulting firm that is providing an in-kind contribution of $14,000 to the project.

Prof. Ed McBean
Prof. Ed McBean

McBean has studied COVID-19 in various ways since the pandemic began. Wastewater surveillance provides a valuable opportunity to understand the extent of COVID-19 carriers within a community, he said.

If concentrations of COVID-19 increase in wastewater, the data may indicate whether a new infection wave is beginning and whether to monitor different locations to determine the source of higher infections in a community, he added.

“Reliable procedures for wastewater surveillance are key to really understanding whether control of the virus is occurring.”

The research will take samples from the City of Guelph wastewater system and use DNA detection technologies – polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and metagenomic whole genome sequencing – to gather reliable data for COVID-19 surveillance.

“Ultimately, the intent is to provide governments at all levels with reliable procedures for wastewater surveillance to really understand whether control of the virus is occurring. It is an opportunity to understand caseload development of the virus as it evolves and detect whether a resurgence is occurring,” he said.

He said wastewater detection pertains not only to COVID-19 but potentially to other diseases. “More widespread monitoring capacities as a means of surveillance for early warning represents an important opportunity for the future.”


Prof. Ed McBean