UBC Civil Engineering professor Ryan Ziels to develop wastewater testing for COVID-19

Update: July 9, 2020, The team’s research, titled “ Expanding the wastewater-based epidemiology toolkit for monitoring COVID-19 community transmission in Canada,” has received the NSERC Alliance COVID-19 grant for one year. NSERC is providing up to $15 million in total support to stimulate collaborations between university academic researchers and the public and not-for-profit sectors, and industry to address pandemic-related research and technical challenges.

Ryan Ziels, an Assistant Professor of environmental engineering in the UBC Department of Civil Engineering, and Natalie Prystajecky at the BC Center for Disease and Control (BCCDC) and UBC Faculty of Medicine, are developing a method for detecting and “counting” the novel coronavirus in wastewater that they hope will lead to better prevention and management of any second waves of COVID-19.

“Wastewater has the potential to serve as an early warning indicator of a resurgence of COVID-19 in a population. This can provide cities and governments with an earlier opportunity to act and implement mitigation strategies,” said Ziels.

Testing wastewater may be particularly useful in detecting asymptomatic spread, or demonstrating when testing isn’t able to reach certain groups. Similar to nasal swab testing on a technical level—both methods look for genetic material from the virus in the sample.

Wastewater testing may provide earlier warning about the disease’s spread in a community than clinical tests or hospitalizations. It may also provide a way to detect outbreaks at institutions such as correctional facilities or meat processing facilities, without the need to test everyone there.

A recent study published in the journal Gastroentereology examined 73 COVID-19 patients and found that 17 of them continued to test positive in their stools even after negative results from nose or throat swab tests.

Dr. Ziels and Dr. Prystajecky are currently developing methods to better track the viral signal in wastewater. The goal is to make major headway in research and development now, before any second waves hit, so that the new method can be a resource to public health officials and help with their decision-making.

“While methods are already in-place to count how much virus is in a given sample, there are many unknowns when applying such an approach to wastewater,” said Dr. Ziels, “for instance, how good is our recovery of the viral material in wastewater, and how does that vary between, and within, cities? Moreover, how degraded is the viral material in wastewater? These are some key questions that will drive appropriate method development and utilization.”

If all goes well, Prystajecky estimates that a “good valid test” can be developed in a couple of months.

The team is currently in the process of securing funding to support the research.

“We are fortunate to have support from Metro Vancouver as a partner on this project. We are also cooperating with the Canadian Water Network to establish a national working group that is sharing knowledge and data on wastewater monitoring. Such a national network could help to standardize methods across labs, and lead to reliable data as we head into gradual re-opening of the economy,” Ziels said.