UBC Civil In The Media – Wastewater off flights from China to Vancouver will soon be tested for COVID-19

Originally published in: Victoria News

Pilot project coming into effect alongside new federal mandate for COVID tests.

The Vancouver International Airport will soon be testing wastewater off flights arriving from China and Hong Kong, as part of the federal government’s efforts to track how many cases of COVID-19 may or may not be entering Canada from those regions.

The short-term pilot project, which is also being rolled out at the Toronto Pearson International Airport, is a sort of safeguard in addition to the negative COVID-19 tests required before boarding, beginning on Jan. 5. If people happen to test falsely negative, the virus may still be picked up in wastewater onboard the flight.

Both measures are part of the federal government’s response to a surge in COVID-19 cases in China. Experts have expressed mixed opinions on the pre-boarding testing requirement, with some criticizing it as a political move that is unlikely to actually reduce the spread of the virus, but many are in favour of more wastewater testing.

Ryan Ziels, an assistant professor of civil engineering with the University of British Columbia, was part of a team that implemented wastewater testing in Australia near the start of the pandemic. He says it was fairly common for them to detect COVID-19 onboard flights, despite negative test requirements.

“It’s a supplemental tool,” he says.

By testing wastewater from individual flights, Ziels says epidemiologists can narrow down the presence of COVID-19 to smaller groups of people and inform them if they should self-isolate. Of course, the testing was more effective at stopping the spread of the virus when people were required to quarantine after arriving in a new country. That isn’t the case anymore, and it will be up to people to choose to isolate on their own if they’re informed COVID-19 was present on their flight.

Unfortunately, the turnaround time for wastewater tests may prevent even this. A spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada says results will likely take one to two weeks. Their focus appears to be more on detecting new variants entering Canada, rather than informing people of individual cases.

The timeline and specifics of the pilot project at YVR are still unknown. Trevor Boudreau, YVR’s director of government communications, says the government only reached out to them on Dec. 30, so they’re still figuring out exactly how things will work.

In the meantime, a separate, broader wastewater testing program is expected to start up at the airport in the next couple of weeks. Boudreau says this second program will test for COVID-19 in the airport’s overall wastewater, including from all flights and the terminal.