Small towns likely to be big losers when Ontario stops monitoring wastewater, expert says

Scientists turned to monitoring wastewater to get ahead of future outbreaks of all sorts of pathogens, including influenza, but the program is being scrapped provincially.  (Mac Lai/Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry - image credit)
Scientists turned to monitoring wastewater to get ahead of future outbreaks of all sorts of pathogens, including influenza, but the program is being scrapped provincially. (Mac Lai/Schulich School of Medicine & Dentistry - image credit)

Small towns and rural communities are likely to see the biggest impact when the province stops paying scientists to monitor wastewater for COVID-19 and other illnesses, an expert says.

Also likely to suffer is the scientific community's ability to learn from rich, robust data that is currently being collected but won't be after the provincial surveillance program wraps up at the end of July, said Chris deGroot, the lead researcher at the Western University lab that monitors the wastewater in this region.

"It's safe to assume that with the transition to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC), there will be a reduction in the total number of sites and that we're most likely going to see the sites be in larger urban centres," deGroot said.

The province told his lab and others across Ontario that it would no longer pay them to monitor the level of COVID-19 in the population, a program that measured how much of that virus and others is circulating in the community.

Currently, there are 60 locations from which wastewater is collected and analyzed across the province, deGroot said, including two in London and four just outside the city.

The federal program has just four such location sites at the moment, all in Toronto. The Public Health Agency of Canada did not respond to questions about how much its program will expand, when the expansion will happen or how often samples will be taken and tested.

More sites, more info

DeGroot's lab collects and tests samples five days a week, he said.

"The more sites you have, the more you can get an aggregate signal that's more meaningful, as opposed to having just one plant that's giving you all of your information," deGroot said. "When you do five days a week, you get a really good signal and it really helps smooth out any of the noise that appears just with day-to-day fluctuation."

University of Calgary researchers check monitoring equipment as they track traces of COVID-19 in the wastewater system in  Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, July 14, 2021.
University of Calgary researchers check monitoring equipment as they track traces of COVID-19 in the wastewater system in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, July 14, 2021.

University of Calgary researchers check monitoring equipment as they track traces of COVID-19 in the wastewater system in Alberta in 2021. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

The research that's been done on the wastewater and pathogens found has also been valuable with the provincial program, he added. "Access to the sampling and all that data has been a real boon to the research side of things.

"By having a whole bunch of academic labs involved in the routine surveillance work, we've published a bunch of papers, we've refined the methods, and we've really advanced the science of wastewater surveillance through this work."

Wastewater monitoring has been a really important tool for local public health agencies as the COVID-19 virus moved through the community, said Dr. Alex Summers, the region's medical officer of health.

"We continue to emphasize how helpful and important this tool has been," Summers said. "We do anticipate that the federal program will be expanded and we'll hear more details in the future about how that's going to unfold."