City of Regina partnering with U of R to help predict COVID-19 cases by analyzing stool

The City of Regina says it’s partnering with the University of Regina to analyze human waste as a way to predict how many COVID-19 cases the city could see.

Kim Onrait, executive director of citizen services for the City of Regina, said at Wednesday’s city council meeting that the city is providing the U of R with waste samples. Researchers will analyze the samples and the results will be sent to the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Tzu-Chiao Chao, a researcher at the U of R, said people shed traces of the virus through their feces.

His team started analyzing samples a few months ago while developing the testing method. Chao said early results have lined up pretty closely with the number of reported cases in Regina.

However, the test’s accuracy depends on how much of the virus is in the sample.

“At this point we can say that if only one person in the city is affected, we are unlikely to be able to detect it,” he said.

“We need a certain amount of people shedding a certain amount of viral particles in order to get to the point [when] we can actually see a signal showing up in the sewer system,” he said.

Predictions yet to come

Chao said the testing method will need some tweaking before he can make any predictions.

“There are limitations currently in supply chains for certain materials, for example. There’s a lot of people doing testing now and we are looking into whether we may be able to use some alternate methods,” he said, noting that he’s trying to keep costs down while also avoiding a bottleneck situation.

Chao said that as the testing method evolves, it could  not only be an effective tool for predicting COVID-19 cases, but could one day also help predict the severity of other viruses and even shed light into other aspects affecting a community’s health, like prolonged exposure to pollution.

“There will be more pandemics. There will be more outbreaks. There will be more diseases,” he said.

“Essentially what we’re hoping to do is to see if we can improve our toolbox so that we are better prepared in the future to respond to these kinds of things, ideally before they happen or at least in the early phase of them.”

Researchers from the University of Saskatchewan are employing a similar strategy in Saskatoon. They predicted on Nov. 19 a spike of 100 to 150 new COVID-19 cases per day. Since then, the total number of positive cases in Saskatoon has gone up by 1,200, based on numbers from Dec. 4.

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