Ending the Wastewater Monitoring Initiative is a mistake, says local expert

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

The province recently announced that the Wastewater Monitoring Initiative would soon end, a decision that local experts and politicians consider 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 more than 60 per cent of the population. A University of Guelph lab was responsible for the local testing, led by professors Lawrence Goodridge and Marc Habash.

The program has been used not only to track COVID-19, but also other infectious diseases, such as influenza, polio and RSV, and could detect signs of disease in wastewater up to two weeks before cases appear in the community. population. Public health units would then upload that information to online dashboards.

“That’s why 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 scheduled to end July 31, after which a federal program will take over.

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

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health spokesperson Danny Williamson said it has been indicated that PHAC will expand its sites in Ontario, but it is 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 diseases are limited to syndromic surveillance, such as presentation to emergency departments with respiratory symptoms and school absenteeism (which is not specific to respiratory disease activity), and reported activity. in other geographies with stronger surveillance systems,” he said.

Guelph MPP Mike Schreiner called for extending the wastewater testing program on June 5, saying the expansion of the federal program is “insufficient to maintain the standard we have set” with the 59 testing sites in the entire province.

“We need this type of detailed information to detect emerging threats, monitor community spread, and make informed public health and policy 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 we can continue to benefit from the many insights it offers.”

During the pandemic and until the program ends July 31, the U of G lab would sample wastewater three to five times a week at water treatment plants and other locations such as residential buildings and correctional facilities. the U of G. Other sites have also tracked locations such as long-term care homes.

“And then when clinical testing stopped or greatly slowed down, which was in early January 2023, wastewater testing was really the only way to get an accurate idea of ​​what was happening in communities.” Goodridge said.

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

“Solutions are funded to solve the serious problem, but once the problems seem to be solved, by keeping surveillance programs like this going, I think there is enormous pressure from people who may not understand why it is important, When there is no serious situation, keep going.”

If a surveillance program works properly, he said, people will never know, because the idea is to prevent a problem in the first place.

He said before the pandemic, in other parts of Canada pandemic surveillance programs were being scaled back because their value was questioned.

“People said, well, why do we need them? We’ve been funding them for several years and there’s never been a pandemic, so we don’t really need them. And then the COVID-19 pandemic came, and we were caught completely off guard and off guard,” he said.

“That’s why it’s important to remember the hard lessons we learned. In terms of wastewater surveillance, it took months to get it up and running, and when it was up and running, we didn’t need it to tell us that COVID-19 was there.”

But the general idea of ​​a surveillance program is to detect infectious diseases so that appropriate measures can be implemented before they become a major problem, he said.

“And the only way to do that is to keep the program going or ongoing,” he said. “We are making the same mistakes we made before the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Even now, he said COVID-19 is not going away and there is a lot of concern around H5N1, or bird flu. He worries there will be limited capabilities to track him in the future.

“This program would have been wonderful and we could have easily started testing wastewater without much delay,” he said.

After July 31, if the government wants to restart the program, it will take months, he said.

“While we are here right now. Within a week, it is very easy to add another goal,” he stated.

Goodridge and Habash are also involved in INSPIRE, a four-year pandemic preparedness project in which the federal government is investing $15 million. It involves three other universities and aims to help the biomanufacturing and healthcare sectors prepare for future pandemics by mitigating the impact of infectious diseases and improving the exchange of information 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 may 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 medications.”

When borders were closed during the pandemic, he said there were massive shortages of PPE and scientific supplies for testing and research.

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

“Right now it’s up in the air whether we will continue testing in Guelph,” he said. “At least some wastewater testing will be done, but it won’t be as comprehensive as what we were doing under WSI.”