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Ending Wastewater Surveillance Initiative a mistake, says local expert

‘We’re making the same mistakes that we made before the COVID-19 pandemic,’ says Lawrence Goodridge, one of the U of G professors leading local wastewater testing

The province announced recently the Wastewater Surveillance Initiative would soon end, a decision local experts and politicians believe is a mistake. 

The initiative was launched by the province in 2020 to create a network to track COVID-19 in wastewater, with 59 sampling sites across Ontario in large and medium-sized communities, providing coverage to over 60 per cent of the population. A lab at the University of Guelph was responsible for local testing, led by professors Lawrence Goodridge and Marc Habash. 

The program has been used not just to track COVID-19, but other infectious diseases as well, including influenza, polio and RSV, and could detect disease signals in the wastewater up to two weeks before cases would show up in the population. Public health units would then upload that information to online dashboards. 

“So it's very unfortunate that the program is being dismantled,” Goodridge told GuelphToday, adding that the program is one-of-a-kind. “It’s really disappointing.”

The program is set to end on July 31, after which a federal program will take over. 

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) currently performs wastewater surveillance for COVID-19 at four sites in Toronto; the data is made available twice a week online. 

Spokesperson for Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health Danny Williamson said it’s been indicated PHAC will expand their Ontario sites, but it’s not yet clear how many are being considered or where they will be located. 

The end of the provincial program means there will be a reduction in data frequency, disease targets and sampling sites. 

“Without wastewater, our local early warning signals of COVID-19 activity and other respiratory illnesses is limited to syndromic surveillance such as presenting to emergency departments with respiratory symptoms, and school absenteeism (which is not specific to respiratory illness activity), and activity reported in other geographies with stronger surveillance systems,” he said. 

Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner put out a call to extend the wastewater testing program on June 5, saying the expansion of the federal program is “insufficient to maintain the standard we have established” with the 59 test sites across the province. 

“We need this kind of detailed information to detect emerging threats, monitor community spread and make informed policy and public health decisions,” Schreiner said in the statement. “I join the many doctors and medical experts calling on the government to preserve funding for the wastewater testing program so that we can continue to benefit from the many insights it offers.”

Throughout the pandemic and until the program comes to an end on July 31, the U of G lab would sample the wastewater three to five times a week in water treatment plants and other locations like U of G residence buildings and correctional facilities. Other sites have also tracked locations like long-term care homes. 

“And then when clinical testing stopped or largely decreased, which was at the beginning of January 2023, wastewater testing was really the only way we could have an accurate idea of what was happening in communities,” Goodridge said. 

While Goodridge is disappointed the program is ending, he wasn’t all that surprised. 

“Solutions are funded to solve the acute problem, but once problems seem to be solved, keeping surveillance programs such as this going, I think there’s enormous pressure from people who may not understand why it’s important when there isn’t an acute situation to keep it going.” 

If a surveillance program works properly, he said people will never know, because the whole idea is that it prevents a problem in the first place. 

He said before the pandemic, elsewhere in Canada pandemic surveillance programs were being reduced because the value was being questioned, 

“People said, well, why do we need these? We've been funding these for a number of years, and there's never been any pandemic, so we don't really need them. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and we were caught completely flat-footed and unprepared,” he said. 

“This is why it's important to remember the hard lessons that we learned. In terms of wastewater surveillance, it took months to get that up and going, and by the time it was, we did not need (it) to tell us that COVID-19 was there.”

But the whole idea of a surveillance program is to detect infectious diseases so proper steps can be put in place before they become a major issue, he said. 

“And the only way to have that is to have the program going or continuously,” he said. “We’re making the same mistakes that we made before the COVID-19 pandemic.” 

Even now, he said COVID-19 isn’t going away, and there is a lot of concern around H5N1, or bird flu. He’s concerned there will be limited capabilities to track it going forward. 

“This program would have been a wonderful program from which we could easily have begun testing wastewater for that and without much delay,” he said. 

After July 31 if the government wants to start the program back up again, he said it will take months. 

“Whereas we’re here right now. Within a week, it’s very easy to add another target,” he said. 

Goodridge and Habash are also involved with INSPIRE, a four-year pandemic preparedness project in which the federal government is investing $15 million. It involves three other universities, and is intended to help biomanufacturing and health sectors prepare for future pandemics by mitigating the impact of infectious diseases and improving information sharing and technologies across borders.  

The end of WSI means the INSPIRE project is more important than ever, he said. 

“It's not a surveillance program, per se, but we will be doing wastewater surveillance as part of INSPIRE, and that could very well be the only non-federal wastewater testing that ends up ongoing in Ontario,” he said. 

“The goal of INSPIRE was really to conduct wastewater surveillance as an early warning indicator to help biomedical supply chains, which are producing things like PPE gloves and masks and reagents for diagnostics and drugs.”

When borders shut down during the pandemic, he said there was a massive shortage of PPE and scientific supplies to do testing and research. 

By testing border regions like Windsor and Detroit or Niagara and Buffalo, he said if they were to see a signal of emerging pathogens, they could work with those biomedical supply chains in advance to ensure there are no shortages.

“Whether we will continue to test in Guelph is up in the air at this point,” he said. “There will be at least a little bit of wastewater testing going on, but it will be nothing near as comprehensive as what we were doing under WSI.”