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🔬 "Oh Crap! COVID-19 In Our Wastewater?!"

Let's Talk About Water

Photo by Tai's Captures / Unsplash

Host: Jay Famiglietti
Guests: Bernadette Conant | CEO | Canadian Water Network &
Markus Brinkmann | Assistant Professor in Exposure & Risk Assessment Modeling | School of Environment & Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[5:41] MB: “For us, it started […] [with] can we see this virus in our wastewater? And can we turn this into something useful for public health decision makers? So it started out of curiosity […]. As people became more interested in the topic, it really showed that, yes, there is a potential for early warning, because an infected person starts shedding the virus relatively rapidly after being infected, but might not show up for testing until days later. But it goes far beyond that. Right now, one of the biggest interest in the topic is detecting the presence of new variants of concern in […] a partially vaccinated population. And that's something that really hasn't been done in that level of detail before.”

[6:55] BC: “Everybody's focus, understandably, has been on the early warning potential. And that's important. But […] in my personal view, the biggest potential value of this technique is the insight it's going to give us into how this happened, how it happens, how things spread.”

[7:45] MB: “I think one of the big advantages of wastewater is that it does not depend on who shows up for testing. So for example, last year, we had a big snowstorm in […] Saskatchewan […]. People did not really make it to the drive through testing centers. So a lot of samples were delayed, a lot of people were showing up delayed for testing. And that's really where this ability to forecast kind of falls apart. Or if you see that the behavior of people changes, for example, people might be vaccinated and get the sniffles and don't find it necessary to show up for testing. So I really think the value here of wastewater testing is that it can also detect those latent infections. So it really generates this extra layer of information for our public health decision makers to really see what's going on in the community without relying only on one source of information.”

[10:08] BC: “This pandemic lays bare the difference between pursuing regulations and science and everything in the systems that we've built around them, versus the world of emergency response. My learning from the past year is, those two worlds have to meld and I don't ever think we're going back. So the reality going forward is the rapid evolution of science, the rapid exchange of science, the need to rapidly inform decisions really challenges the whole set of systems that we have.”

[14:43] MB: “There are a number of lessons learned from this whole effort and that is that not all wastewater treatment plants are the same. Not all wastewater is the same. […] It differs in composition, it differs in the dilution, it differs in how many people are contributing and shedding virus into this wastewater collection system. So the methods for detecting the virus need to be very much adapted to the specific circumstance. […] If we want to use this for future uses for potential future pandemics for other purposes in monitoring public health, then I really think that this increase in our understanding is going to be super useful.”

[15:33] MB: “A term that has been coined quite recently is that of syndemics. So this is not only [the] COVID-19 pandemic, there's a number of other epidemics that are happening at the same time. You've heard about fentanyl laced crack cocaine and the rise of that causing drug overdose deaths, the increase in potential alcohol and other substance abuse, obesity, lack of physical activity during that pandemic. And all of those are things that you can observe in the wastewater […]. I think the lessons learned from all of this are really going to be putting us into a much better position to A understand the impacts of those synthetics and B to be better prepared for potential future outbreaks with pandemic potential.”

[19:01] MB: “There's a huge potential to use this technology to monitor other molecules. So you can, for example, monitor the use of pharmaceuticals across a population. You can monitor the use of illicit drugs across a population. You can also monitor and detect molecules that we are extracting on a regular basis and that are, transformation products that would, for example, preferentially show up in people with diabetes, and things like that. So there's this potential to really use this for public health but to monitor other and different things. […] It's basically a pocketknife of different applications.”

Rating: 💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 23 min | 🗓️ 08/28/2021
✅ Time saved: 21 min