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Spotting the second wave: uOttawa researchers use wastewater tests to detect COVID-19

Robert Delatolla
Robert Delatolla

As the spread of COVID-19 shows signs of slowing locally, a team of researchers at the University of Ottawa is already experimenting with a new method for detecting future outbreaks in the National Capital Region – even before individuals who are feeling unwell get tested.

Civil engineering professor Robert Delatolla and his team studied and tested wastewater samples prior to the pandemic to better understand how naturally occurring microorganisms can remove pollution from the water.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spread around the world, Delatolla and his team saw an opportunity to take their knowledge of wastewater testing and apply it to the area of detecting this new coronavirus.

“This type of testing has been done for polio and many other outbreaks before, so we knew if we could track the virus in the water, then maybe we could get a better sense of how much infectivity is happening and better understand the trend,” says Delatolla.

In a matter of days he connected with researchers at the CHEO Research Institute as well as in the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Medicine to establish a plan for how to properly test wastewater in Ottawa-Gatineau for traces of COVID-19 and determine what data his team could pull from the study that would assist in understanding its potential spread.

An effective testing tool

The coronavirus is detectable in wastewater because of its presence in fecal matter. This means that the testing method used by Delatolla and his colleagues can offer an abundance of helpful information, he says.

By testing the water in various regions, his team may be able to detect if the virus can be transmitted through the waterways, confirm that wastewater treatment systems, such as chlorine or ultraviolet disinfection eliminate the detection of the virus as well as determine which areas are experiencing a higher rate of infection – potentially even before an outbreak.

“Our real mission is to help the health authorities by creating a tool to complement the testing that’s going on,” he says. “Everyone is concerned about multiple waves and how we can catch them early on. Continuing to monitor the wastewater could be a really effective tool.”

While the testing is still in its early stages, the team at the University of Ottawa are at the forefront of coronavirus wastewater research by actively testing samples and making headway in virus detection. Delatolla points to the strong collaboration between his team and local institutions as the catalyst for the team’s success so far, and looks forward to continuing the research in hopes of creating a viable detection option.

“It’s going to be a long-term initiative for us to keep monitoring and understanding the research,” he adds. “But, if we can get our feet under us and have this tool established, it might be something that’s really beneficial for us in the future.”

Responding to industry changes

There is a growing demand for professionals with the skills and knowledge required to tackle emerging global issues.

The University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Engineering is doing its part to respond to those needs by introducing new graduate programs to help students develop the skills they need to make a difference. From civil engineering to artificial intelligence, the Faculty of Engineering is looking to help students build a better future.

The new programs include:

  • Digital transformation and innovation with concentrations in applied data science and user experience design;
  • Civil engineering with a concentration in sustainable and resilient Infrastructure;
  • Electrical and computer engineering with a concentration in applied artificial intelligence;
  • Master of Engineering in entrepreneurial engineering design
  • Professional development graduate courses

For more information on the new graduate programs visit