In the Wake of Walkerton Tragedy, Experts Call for Vigilance in Wastewater Surveillance for COVID-19
In the wake of the Walkerton tragedy in 2000 when seven people died and 2,300 were sickened by an E. coli breakout in the Ontario town’s drinking water, Justice Dennis O’Connor, who led an inquiry into the tragedy and brought changes to strengthen drinking water protections in Canada, warned that the “keynote in the future should be vigilance.” Nearly three-and-a-half years since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are calling for the same vigilance in wastewater surveillance for COVID-19.
The Importance of Wastewater Surveillance
Wastewater surveillance became an important tool for detecting COVID-19 outbreaks in communities throughout the pandemic, and it continues to be used in the search for coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 as well as other pathogens. People who are infected shed the SARS-CoV-2 virus before symptoms set in and while they’re sick, not only from nose and mouth exhalations, but also in their feces.
- Wastewater surveillance provides early detection of COVID-19 outbreaks
- Does not rely on people getting tested or reporting results
- Identifies trends and gives a head start to public health institutions
Current Status of Wastewater Surveillance
As of the latest update by the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) on July 28, 41% of wastewater monitoring sites across the country showed decreasing levels of COVID-19 in wastewater, while 28% showed an increase. However, the number of tests being conducted has decreased as the severity of COVID-19 cases wanes.
- Reduction in testing shows complacency may be creeping in
- Current levels of government funding for wastewater surveillance are uncertain
- Experts call for a standardized system for wastewater surveillance
The Need for a Federal Strategy
Experts emphasize the need for a federal strategy to create a system of wastewater monitoring for COVID-19. Currently, different programs are being run independently in each province, leading to a lack of coordination and data sharing.
- Current programs are independent and not related to each other
- Experts call for a standardized system and data sharing
- Reduction in funding may lead to the discontinuation of wastewater testing
The Role of Scientists and Researchers
Scientists and researchers have played a crucial role in the development and implementation of wastewater surveillance for COVID-19. They have pivoted their research focus and collaborated internationally to validate methods and share knowledge.
- Scientists transitioned to wastewater surveillance to support public health
- Open collaboration and knowledge sharing allowed for quick progress
- Scientists detected the virus in local wastewater and shared their process
Wastewater surveillance has been a valuable tool in detecting and monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks. However, complacency and a lack of standardized systems and funding pose challenges for its continuation. Experts emphasize the need for vigilance and a federal strategy to ensure the effectiveness of wastewater surveillance in protecting public health.