There’s more than one way to test for COVID-19 in the community, and Trent University and Peterborough Public Health are leading the way with an increasingly important method as part of Ontario’s Wastewater Surveillance Initiative.
Funded by the Ministry of Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP), the initiative is aimed at detecting and measuring COVID-19 levels in wastewater systems in and around Peterborough.
“Studies have shown that wastewater surveillance can actually detect if people are shedding the virus before they have symptoms, so it’s another level of monitoring how much COVID is out in the community,” says Audrey Wilson '14 (Champlain College), a research assistant at Trent’s Natural Resources DNA Profiling and Forensic Centre, which is performing the analyses.
Audrey, a graduate of Trent’s Forensic Science program, joined the Centre in March of last year and is part of the group that collects and analyzes the wastewater around the community. She is also working alongside one of her former professors, Dr. Christopher Kyle, who is the director of the research centre.
“We’re all cross-trained but my role specifically is to take the wastewater in its liquid form and convert it to a form where we can actually extract DNA from the sample,” says Audrey.
How to look for COVID-19 in wastewater
Preparing the wastewater samples for analysis entails a process called centrifugation.
“The water goes into little tubes that we spin really fast, so all the solid materials settle at the bottom and form a kind of hard pellet of solid material,” says Audrey.
From the solid material, the team can detect the level of COVID-19 and present and report this data to Peterborough’s public health agency. This information helps community leaders make decisions about how to minimize the spread of the virus.
Connection to Trent undergraduate work in forensic sciences
Audrey’s fourth-year undergraduate thesis project with Dr. Kyle was related to environmental DNA (eDNA) testing, which helped her develop the right set of skills for this increasingly important work.
“My project involved analyzing waterbodies around Ontario for amphibian pathogens,” she says. “The process is pretty similar to the wastewater work in that you are analyzing the solid material from water in order to detect small pieces of DNA or RNA that are left behind from the pathogen or virus you’re trying to detect.”
Building new skills while helping community
Working at the Centre has been beneficial for Audrey to get more experience in a field that interests her.
“I had been in school a long time, so it’s been a really good opportunity to apply those skills, and working with a smaller team gives me a little bit of independence,” says Audrey.
She’s also happy to be working on something that is helpful and important to the community.
“We’re working really hard at getting the data out on a daily basis and have got a lot of positive remarks from our collaborators,” she says. “And it looks like we’re going to be doing this a little while longer, so I’m enjoying my time here right now.”