With the global COVID-19 pandemic dragging on, the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) is expanding its program that monitors wastewater in several B.C. communities to test for the COVID-19 virus. The BCCDC says samples of stool taken from wastewater systems can provide a plethora of health information, as it can contain some infectious pathogens, medications, or drugs.  

Those who carry the COVID-19 virus often shed it through their feces, and the BCCDC said the collection of wastewater samples informs COVID-19 circulation data and strategies to protect British Columbians from severe illness. Until recently, the wastewater surveillance program collected samples from five Lower Mainland wastewater facilities. Now, the program will expand to Vancouver Island and B.C’s Interior. 

“The information we receive from wastewater is valuable in conjunction with other data to help us understand the impact of COVID-19 and how it is spreading in our communities,” says Natalie Prystajecky, lead of the wastewater project and head for the Environmental Microbiology program at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) Public Health Laboratory. 

“While using wastewater to understand the dynamics of disease is not new; it was only during the pandemic that this surveillance tool was widely adopted around the world.”

The new communities will include nearby Kamloops, Kelowna, and Penticton, but not Merritt’s wastewater system. The new expansions are a partnership between the BCCDC, municipalities, and regional health districts. On Vancouver Island, the Capital Regional District (Victoria), Nanaimo, and the Comox Valley Regional District will take part in the program to inform the spread of COVID-19 through their communities.

The program is a part of a pan-Canadian wastewater network that feeds data to a national surveillance program. The program is now working on ways to test samples for viruses other than COVID-19, such as influenza, along with bacteria and other substances that play a role in assessing population health. Interior Health said the addition of three communities under their jurisdiction is a welcome benefit.  

“Monitoring wastewater in the B.C. interior supports Interior Health’s continued COVID-19 response,” says Dr. Silvina Mema, Medical Health Officer for Interior Health. 

“This information allows us to better understand the COVID-19 epidemiology in the region and adds to the provincial picture. We are glad to be collaborating with the BCCDC and local governments on this project.” 

The wastewater surveillance program is eyeing another expansion into Northern Health, along with its ambitions to expand the possible uses of the technology. Data gathered by the program can be found on the BCCDC Wastewater Dashboard, online at www.bccdc.shinyapps.io/respiratory_wastewater.