Sept. 19, 2023

Operation of award-winning COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program transitions to public health authorities

Monitoring activities handed off, but expanded research and data sharing will continue
The COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program in action.
The COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program in action. Riley Brandt, Erin O’Connor, and ACWA files

After three years of research impact, national attention, and remarkable public uptake, continued operation of the joint UCalgary and University of Alberta COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program has been handed off to Alberta Health and Alberta Precision Laboratories (APL).

The COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program, led at UCalgary by researchers from the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM), Faculty of Science, Schulich School of Engineering and Advancing Canadian Water Assets (ACWA,) has been testing wastewater for early signs of COVID-19 cases since June 2020.

“We are exceptionally proud of the researchers, staff and trainees who created and operated the COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program,” says Dr. William Ghali, vice-president (research). “They went above and beyond to offer a public service during an unprecedented time, and the impact of their research and knowledge mobilization efforts has been significant.”

The province’s decision to transfer COVID-19 monitoring to public health authorities validates the success of the research and its value to Albertans. Alberta Health and APL will continue to monitor for COVID-19 in Alberta’s wastewater, and their data will be shared on the COVID Tracker website operated by the Centre for Health Informatics (CHI) at the CSM.

Michael Parkins, Casey Hubert and Kevin Frankowski led the COVID-19 wastewater monitoring project.

Michael Parkins, Casey Hubert and Kevin Frankowski led the COVID-19 wastewater monitoring project.

Adrian Shellard

“This is the end of a chapter for our team, but we achieved our goals and also developed a platform that we will continue to grow,” says Kevin Frankowski, executive director of ACWA.

“When we started this program, it was our goal to develop something useful to Calgarians with the potential for growth and broader application than just COVID-19. We’re proud to have achieved it, and to have been a source of reliable information for so many Albertans over the past three years.”

“We wanted to use our expertise to develop solutions to the complex challenge of detecting and monitoring SARS-CoV-2 in our community,” says Dr. Casey Hubert, PhD, a professor in the Faculty of Science specializing in environmental microbiology.

“The testing that we handed off to the province is efficient, effective, and uses cutting-edge approaches that we deployed here in Calgary.”

UCalgary’s team will continue to advance wastewater monitoring science, and routine bi-weekly Influenza and RSV data will continue to be reported in real time on the COVID tracker.

“Our team is advancing the science looking at other respiratory and transmissible viruses, bacterial pathogens and antimicrobial resistance and substances of potential abuse,” says Dr. Michael Parkins, MD, professor in the CSM and infectious disease specialist.

“We believe strongly in the potential of wastewater monitoring, and we’re excited to see where this research will take us next.”

Looking back on the past three years, the team is pleased with what they have accomplished and are grateful for the community support.

Tyler Williamson presents the COVID-19 Tracker website to a group of delegates

Tyler Williamson presents the COVID-19 Tracker website to a group of delegates from VPS Health.

Katrina Ghali

“The amount of support that we’ve received from the university and communities across the province has been incredible,” says Dr. Tyler Williamson, PhD, director of the CHI. “We are so honoured to be able to provide this information to Albertans.”

The impact goes beyond the 60,000 community members checking the tracker each month and relying on it as a decision-making tool. The UCalgary COVID-19 wastewater monitoring program also employed 37 people, including training 22 undergraduate and graduate students and postdocs. The researchers also did dozens of interviews for local, provincial and national newscasts.

In addition to the day-to-day work of monitoring and real-time reporting, the group has also published several research papers, in publications including Water Research, Science of the Total Environment, and the flagship journal of the US Centres for Disease Control Emerging Infectious Diseases. The team also received the 2022 ASTech Award for Excellence in Health Research, and a Peak Scholars in COVID-19 Innovation Excellence Award in 2021 for their accomplishments.

“The success of this project wouldn’t have been possible without the input and contributions of our partner organizations and municipalities,” says Frankowski. “The University of Alberta, The City of Calgary, The City of Edmonton, Alberta Health Services, Alberta Health, APL, Epcor, and municipalities across the province. We’re grateful for everyone who got involved.”

Casey Hubert is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in the Faculty of Science and Campus Alberta Innovates Program Chair in Geomicrobiology.

Michael Parkins is a 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.

Tyler Williamson is an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine and a member of the O’Brien Institute of Public Health and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute.

Advancing Canadian Wastewater Assets (ACWA) is 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.

Sign up for UToday

Sign up for UToday

Delivered to your inbox — a daily roundup of news and events from across the University of Calgary's 14 faculties and dozens of units

Thank you for your submission.