Cape Breton University Joins Project Aimed at Detecting COVID-19 in Wastewater

Researchers across Nova Scotia are launching a project aimed at detecting the presence of the virus that causes COVID-19 in human wastewater, helping to identify the potential presence of the virus quickly, before it can spread.

Dr. Allison Mackie, Cape Breton University researcher and Assistant Professor of Engineering, is a member of the team which will begin collecting samples throughout Nova Scotia this month. 

“I was asked to join the project by Dr. Graham Gagnon, the lead from Dalhousie University,” explains Dr. Mackie. “I previously worked in Dr. Gagnon’s lab as a Postdoctoral Fellow and he was familiar with my background in water and wastewater treatment.” 

Dr. Mackie’s prior research included testing wastewater for THC, the main active ingredient in cannabis. While the testing will be similar in some ways, Dr. Mackie says the microbiological application of testing wastewater for the COVID-19 virus will be a completely new experience, one she is excited to take on. 

“I’m very excited to be involved in such cutting-edge research that could have an immediate impact on our community,” says Dr. Mackie. “This research is important because it will give the provincial government one more tool in the fight against COVID-19. It could potentially signal an outbreak before positive cases begin to appear.” 

While COVID-19 is a respiratory virus, the genetic material that causes COVID-19 has been found in human wastewater. Because of this, wastewater can be used to determine the presence of the virus before someone develops symptoms. Minister of Business, Geoff MacLellan, says this project could have a significant impact on the lives of Nova Scotians by providing support for making public health decisions and determining the safe lifting of social and economic restrictions. 

The 18-member team will begin collecting samples across the province, with various testing locations in Halifax, Dartmouth, Wolfville, Antigonish and the Cape Breton Regional Municipality.  Dr. Mackie, with the help of a student researcher, will set up a host laboratory at CBU to process samples from the Cape Breton area.

“Ideally, what will come out of this will be greater peace of mind for everyone in the community,” says Dr. Mackie. “While researchers would usually be excited to get a positive result, in this case we’re hoping for all negatives.” 

The final project report is expected to be shared later this year. For more information, visit the Research Nova Scotia website here.