When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic, the Foundation sprang into action investing donor funds into wastewater testing that would accelerate the response to the pandemic. This gave public health leaders invaluable data to help them make decisions about how to better protect the public from the spread of the virus.

Dr Natalie Prystajecky, program head for the Environmental Microbiology program at the BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) Public Health Laboratory, worked with her team on this innovative project after studying viruses like norovirus in Metro Vancouver’s wastewater since 2018. When reports came out of the Netherlands that the SARS-CoV-2 virus was found in wastewater five days before the first clinical case of COVID-19 in that area was detected, Dr Prystajecky knew immediately that wastewater testing could play a game-changing role in the pandemic.

“It demonstrated that COVID was about to hit that city.”

Her team quickly optimized their methods to test for SARS-CoV-2 in five wastewater treatment plants in Metro Vancouver, covering nearly 50% of BC’s population, across two health authorities.

Thanks to funds received from the Foundation’s generous supporters, we were able to pivot quickly to help fund this research, and the team’s testing provided key information each week on how COVID-19 was being spread in and among BC communities.

“We would not have been able to start without the initial investment from the Foundation. It really did help get things moving from the beginning,” Dr Prystajecky said.

Their research kicked off in May 2020, and by September 2020 the team was testing wastewater from across the Lower Mainland. The data gathered gave public health leaders the ability to make the best decisions for the health of communities—from knowing when to tighten and when to re-introduce social gatherings, to travel restrictions, and the critical moments when mask mandates were announced then lifted.

When the data became public, British Columbians were able to use the data for their own risk assessment, making informed decisions about whether to travel.

Thanks to donor support for the Foundation, BC was the first province to do this work within a public health lab setting. Now the team is building a comprehensive enhanced wastewater surveillance system for more illnesses, including influenza, foodborne pathogens, and more.

And in yet another lifesaving application of this wastewater testing in a province where an average of six people are dying daily due to unintentional drug overdose, a 12-month pilot project is currently in development between research teams and harm reduction experts in Public health. The project will test wastewater for trends in illicit drug use, like fentanyl.

With anonymous, population-level data free of biases, the long-term goal of this testing is to improve and enhance public policies that will benefit people who use substances and their communities. Having access to near real-time data can be used to create a greater understanding of who is affected and where, improving responsiveness and the ability to reach people about supply issues before it’s too late.

Provincial Health Officer Dr Bonnie Henry points out, “When we learn about how substance use is changing over time, we can better act to promote the well-being of people in BC.” 

This exciting evolution of adapting an innovative new technology from one emergency to another is thanks to Foundation donors making an investment in the pioneering work of our BC public health researchers.

With this support, wastewater surveillance is becoming a vital tool in BC’s health-promoting toolkit that will improve public health for communities and people across BC, especially those disproportionately represented in reported substance use statistics because of inequities and injustices caused by systemic issues.

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