Knowledge is power: uOttawa researchers first to track influenza virus via wastewater

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uOttawa researcher testing wastewater samples
uOttawa
Philosopher Francis Bacon said it best: knowledge is power. Those words motivated a group of local researchers to use wastewater to track influenza, a viral infection commonly known as “the flu”.

New data will help the community–and public health authorities–make informed decisions

Élisabeth Mercier and Patrick D’Aoust, who are research facilitators at the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Ottawa (uOttawa), along with Robert Delatolla, an associate professor at uOttawa’s Faculty of Engineering, and Tyson Graber, a cellular biologist at CHEO, want to empower the public by alerting them when cases of influenza become prevalent in the community.

Influenza is a respiratory infection whose symptoms are akin to those of SARS-CoV-2. When caught by people with pre-existing conditions or young children, influenza may lead to complications and hospitalization.

The team, along with Dr. Alex MacKenzie, a senior scientist at the CHEO Research Institute, were the first to monitor the city’s wastewater to track COVID-19 levels and to collaborate with public health authorities to help that body make informed decisions about masking in public spaces and planning for vaccination clinics. This tool is now widely used around the world as a proven method to measure and predict COVID-19 infection rates in communities.

“We don’t have widespread testing for the flu like we do for COVID-19, so it is really a testament to how useful wastewater is when you don’t have the clinical testing to go along with it,” said Patrick D’Aoust, a technical officer in environmental engineering. “We’re very proud to be the first team of researchers to track influenza and directly help our community.”

Like a UV or pollen index, influenza indicators can prove quite useful. This research will have a direct impact on those who have pre-existing medical conditions or who are immunocompromised and need to take additional steps to protect themselves during flu season. The team tracks influenza A (H1N1 and H3N2), the most prevalent strains of flu and the ones that cause the most severe symptoms. They found that high levels of influenza virus can be detected 17 days ahead of a positive diagnosis, allowing them to alert the community when numbers start to escalate.

Élisabeth Mercier, research facilitator at the Faculty of Engineering
uOttawa
RESEARCH + INNOVATION

“The customization of data is more and more present. You can’t have public health guidelines for everything, but by having this information at your fingertips, you can make the best decision for you”

Élisabeth Mercier, research facilitator at the Faculty of Engineering

uOttawa

The group of peer-reviewed researchers has now launched their own health tech start-up, Advanced Environmental Molecular Analytics Ltd. (AEMA), to develop state-of-the-art methods of wastewater monitoring for private and public laboratories so they can keep their populations safe. It is the first organization to use influenza identification data in Canadian communities, and the first in the world to use wastewater to type, or identify, influenza. They are also working towards adding these new wastewater readings to the 613 COVID-19 database in Ontario.

Influenza in wastewater research  team - uOttawa
Robert Delatolla, Élisabeth Mercier and Patrick D’Aoust from the Faculty of Engineering at uOttawa and the Advanced Environmental Molecular Analytics Ltd. (AEMA) health tech start-up

“The customization of data is more and more present. You can’t have public health guidelines for everything, but by having this information at your fingertips, you can make the best decision for you, based on your health condition,” concludes Élisabeth Mercier.

The team is now looking at tracking levels of monkeypox virus in our community.

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