Researcher in Xiaoli Lilly Pang's lab at Alberta Precision Laboratories' public health lab.
Wastewater samples are tested for the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, at Alberta Precision Laboratories’ lab. Evan Isbister, Alberta Health Services

Dec. 8, 2021

Alberta’s largest research universities team up to track evidence of COVID-19 in wastewater of 3.2M people across Alberta

Funding provided by Government of Alberta supports provincial monitoring network and online tracker tool

Researchers at the University of Alberta and University of Calgary have teamed up to expand their COVID-19 wastewater monitoring programs across the province. The joint effort monitors the wastewater of approximately 3.2 million people or nearly three-quarters of the population of Alberta, via sampling at 17 wastewater treatment plants and facilities across the province. The Government of Alberta has provided $3.4 million in funding to support the program. 

“Genetic material from SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is excreted in the feces of those who are pre-symptomatic, asymptomatic, as well as those with overt symptoms,” says Dr. Michael Parkins, MD, project co-lead, associate professor at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM).

Wastewater data allows us to identify and track the amount of COVID-19 cases in an identified area, even if they haven’t been clinically diagnosed. We know that testing wastewater for SARS-CoV-2 can help identify cases and predict outbreaks.

Researchers from UCalgary are monitoring wastewater treatment plants in Fort McMurray, Airdrie, Canmore, Calgary, Drumheller, Okotoks, Strathmore and Taber, while researchers from University of Alberta’s Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry are covering Grande Prairie, Cold Lake, Fort Saskatchewan, Edmonton, Red Deer, Banff, High River, Medicine Hat and Lethbridge.

In total, the wastewater of 25 cities, towns and communities is being monitored for traces of the virus in this way. The program is expected to grow as additional municipalities begin to participate.  

Samples will be taken three times a week and results will be shared on the COVID Data Tracker website, which allows members of the public to view recent data points in different communities, to see how cases are trending. Researchers at the CSM’s Centre for Health Informatics have been providing regular online reporting of the wastewater results from Calgary for nearly a year with publicly available real-time data.

The program builds on several successful COVID-19 wastewater projects that have been led by researchers teams from the University of Alberta and UCalgary respectively, in partnership with Alberta Health Services, The City of Calgary, and EPCOR. 

“We already have 17 months of data to show how the wastewater testing correlated with community infection, so it is a useful surveillance tool,” says University of Alberta co-lead Dr. Xiaoli Lilly Pang, MD, PhD, professor of laboratory medicine and pathology, and microbiology program leader with Alberta Precision Laboratories.

“By merging the capacity and expertise of the two teams from UCalgary and U of A, we will enhance our understanding of the whole province.”

“Community-level information about the prevalence of COVID-19 is a valuable tool that will assist our public health teams to identify potential outbreaks and make decisions about how to respond quickly to prevent spread of the disease,” says Dr. Laura McDougall, senior medical officer of health for Alberta Health Services.

“Wastewater monitoring is an important part of our robust overall COVID-19 surveillance system with a proven track record. This funding will expand that program so public health officials and policy-makers can identify and monitor the prevalence of the virus in communities across Alberta. By identifying trends and impacts in specific areas, our COVID-19 response can be better tailored to conditions on the ground,” says Jason Copping, minister of health.

The timing of the network is crucial at this point in the pandemic. “Given climbing vaccination rates, we expect over time to see more asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic infections — accordingly, patients may not get COVID tested and would go unrecognized,” says Parkins.

“Wastewater testing doesn’t discriminate and is the best way of comprehensively monitoring municipal COVID-19 case rates.”

Michael Parkins is an associate professor in the departments of Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. He is section chief of Infectious Disease, Calgary Zone Alberta Health Services. 

Xiaoli Lilly Pang is a professor of laboratory medicine and pathology at the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry. She is also the microbiology program leader for Alberta’s Public Health Laboratory.

UCalgary samples are processed at Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) a globally unique test bed and research facility where researchers, municipalities and industry can de-risk wastewater treatment and monitoring technologies. It is a partnership between the University of Calgary and The City of Calgary, as part of the Urban Alliance.