wastewater testing at a sewer
Alex Buchner and Navid Sedaghat of the UCalgary fieldwork group gather wastewater samples that will be tested for traces of COVID-19 genetic material. Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Sept. 13, 2021

Listening, learning and sharing are key to successful COVID-19 wastewater project

Award-winning interdisciplinary team tracks local COVID cases one manhole at a time

Teamwork makes the dream work — even if the dream is something as icky as wastewater. Icky or not, monitoring Calgary’s wastewater for traces of COVID-19 has proven to be a valuable public health tool, and it wouldn’t be possible without a large interdisciplinary group led by UCalgary. 

Since summer 2020, a team from three UCalgary faculties, Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA), The City of Calgary and Alberta Health Services has been examining wastewater samples in and around Calgary to help identify early COVID-19 infections and outbreaks. 

The COVID-19 Wastewater Monitoring Project is co-led by a team of three researchers who have been recognized for their work: Kevin Frankowski, with a U Make a Difference Award, and Dr. Casey Hubert, PhD, and Dr. Michael Parkins, PhD, as Peak Scholars in COVID-19 Innovation Excellence. While the project leads are the ones named on the awards, they are quick to credit their 30-person team for a wide variety of invaluable contributions to the project’s success. 

“By combining wastewater and epidemiology, this project has been a wonderful example of how diverse and interdisciplinary teams can achieve great outcomes,” says Hubert, associate professor in the Faculty of Science. “Our group was up and running pretty quickly after COVID arrived, despite coming together from different corners of campus and being unfamiliar with each others’ research. A collective willingness to listen and learn within the team has been key to its success so far.”

Hubert co-leads the project alongside Frankowski, executive director of ACWA, and Parkins, associate professor in the Cumming School of Medicine. 

 “Teamwork has been critical, but also rewarding and enjoyable. Everyone is learning. I never thought I’d know this much about how sewer networks operate!” says Hubert.

It all starts with a sample

The process begins when a fieldwork group, led by Alex Buchner Beaudet, visit the nine sampling sites located around the city and collect 24-hour composite samples of wastewater directly from a given sub-section of The City of Calgary wastewater system. Buchner Beaudet is an undergraduate student in the Faculty of Science, one of six undergraduate interns that are a critical part of the team.

The fieldwork group visits the sites at least twice per week, working with automated samplers that sit above a manhole where, over a set period of time, they collect a sample of the wastewater flowing through that section of sewer line. Buchner Beaudet co-ordinates and plans the fieldwork with The City of Calgary, ensures work is being done safely, that the samplers are working properly, and that the samples make it safe and sound to their next stop. 

“My favourite part of the work itself is the range of duties and their corresponding activities that I get to participate in,” says Buchner Beaudet. “I really enjoy how each week brings new challenges to overcome.”

Off to the lab

When Buchner Beaudet drops off the samples at the ACWA lab for Dr. María A. Bautista, PhD, and team to process, they’re a complex mix of all kinds of substances — most of which the team is not interested in. They’re on the hunt for one thing: SARS-CoV-2 RNA. This genetic material is what leaves the body when a person is infected with COVID-19.

Shortly after the team assembled last year, Bautista, an environmental virologist and postdoctoral scholar in the Faculty of Science, worked hard to determine the best method for cleaning up and concentrating the samples. The method needed to be efficient, accurate, and not be susceptible to supply-chain bottlenecks caused by relying on the same testing supplies that the whole world was using to test individuals for COVID-19 infection.

“The pandemic changed the way that scientists think about certain things,” says Bautista. A postdoctoral scholar from the University of Notre Dame started a Slack channel specifically for wastewater monitoring for COVID-19, which was a great source of information for Bautista.

People were sharing everything, and that’s where I found the protocol we wound up adopting. If scientists from around the world hadn’t been sharing information so openly, the field would not have advanced this fast. I have never experienced this in the scientific community before.”

Bautista landed on a protocol developed by scholars from the University of California, Berkeley, and worked with graduate student Janine McCalder to troubleshoot and optimize it for wastewater samples in Calgary. 

Seeing the numbers emerge

Once the samples are cleaned up and concentrated, they are transported to a lab at Foothills campus where Dr. Nicole Acosta, PhD, and team do the final analytical steps to measure how much SARS-CoV-2 RNA is in each sample.

Once Acosta, research associate in the Cumming School of Medicine, knows how much RNA is present in each sample, she compiles a report that details how cases are increasing or decreasing city-wide as well as in the specific neighbourhoods where samplers are gathering wastewater.

“I get very excited every time I analyze the results, as I am the first person in Calgary to see how COVID-19 is spreading in the community,” says Acosta. “When we see that our prediction about the expected number of cases become a reality, it helps us to confirm that our methodology is working effectively.”

Acosta then presents the data to the project stakeholders at the university, The City of Calgary, and Alberta Health Services. It is also passed on to Danielle Southern and the team at the Centre for Health Informatics, who add it to the COVID-19 Data Tracker, where citizens can keep track of case counts in their area.

Interdisciplinary teamwork leads to success

These three team members all speak highly of the group they are a part of, and the project itself. 

“Through my year on this team, the number one thing I have learned about interdisciplinary research is that the variety of perspectives and experiences of a diverse team is extremely valuable in decision-making at all levels, whether that is in the field or in the board room,” says Buchner Beaudet.

“At the university academic level, it is not very common to have an opportunity to work with teams in other departments, and it is even less common to work with external partners, such as the City of Calgary and Alberta Health Services,” says Acosta.

“I don’t think that any of us could have gotten this far without each other,” says Bautista. “It was possible to do something more meaningful with a truly interdisciplinary team.”   

Michael Parkins is an associate professor in the departments of Medicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases at the Cumming School of Medicine. He is a member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases. He is section chief of infectious disease, Calgary Zone Alberta Health Services. 

Casey Hubert is an associate professor in the department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science and Campus Alberta Innovates Program Chair in Geomicrobiology.

Kevin Frankowski is the executive director of Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets, a globally unique test bed and research facility where researchers, municipalities and industry can de-risk wastewater treatment and monitoring technologies. It is a partnership between the University of Calgary and The City of Calgary, as part of the Urban Alliance.