Graham Gagnon

HALIFAX: After a successful pilot study in Halifax, a Dalhousie University-based research project aiming to predict early warning signs of COVID-19 has now expanded to StFX University.

Graham Gagnon, the lead researcher at Dalhousie, told The Reporter they have developed a rapid test to detect the presence of SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) in wastewater, helping to identify the potential presence of the virus quickly and before it can spread.

“The goal of the research project is to quantify COVID-19 in wastewater, in Nova Scotia communities to the best we can,” Gagnon said. “To try to understand through a research lens, the detection, as well as the advancement of sampling wastewater, collecting wastewater and detecting COVID-19.”

The lead researcher indicated the first step is to see if they can just detect the virus, and then they’ll look at if it offers any kind of signal that could help in decision making.

First and foremost with StFX, Gagnon said researchers will be seeing if they can trace anything on-campus.

“There are active conversations with the Town of Antigonish, to see if they can begin to; if they see it in the university, would they see it in the town’s wastewater,” he said. “Nothing has been finalized between them, but I know those discussions are ongoing.”

In terms of sampling, Gagnon suggested there are a number of different approaches their lab and other researches have taken; they’re focusing on individual locations to collect samples, and back at their lab, specific test technology would tell them if the virus is present.

“It really depends on where you’re sampling from, and whether or not you’re trying to localize a certain area,” he said. “In the case in Antigonish we’re trying to localize at StFX. Wastewater plants may represent several hours, or even a days use, whereas the StFX sample will be fresher in time.”

He said after developing a technology last fall, researchers wanted to develop a co-ordinated effort across the province, in more communities, involving other labs to see how robust this method could be, and how well their ability to detect the virus could be at a much broader scale.

“Right now, our emphasis on this program is coordination, we want to have locations repeatedly sampled the same way on a scheduled basis so that way we would begin to understand the potential for this method,” Gagnon said. “Wastewater and sewer systems fluctuate regularly, so we want to be consistent in our approach.”

In terms of their short-term goals, he said they can see benefits as they’re able to sample the wastewater in a community-based approach, which would allow them to see if it’s present on a community, rather than an individual level.

Wastewater sampling will take place until July, with a final research project report expected in November, something Gagnon suggested how the province, individual municipalities, or other companies will view this, it’s hard for him to predict the longevity.

While they’re not actively recruiting, he said they’re not also saying no to anyone.

“Certainly we’ve had interested parties across the province, and I think for right now our emphasis is the initial start-up of getting ourselves organized and on a routine basis,” Gagnon said. “We’re just trying to understand what we can do initially, and as we gain more experience and gain more knowledge of our limitations, we’ll be in a better position to work with other stakeholders in the province.”