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For virus tracking, wastewater is liquid gold. Scientists hope that work isn't flushed away

Sep 19, 2022

One night in March 2020, as wastewater researcher Robert Delatolla was making dinner at his Ottawa home, his wife wondered out loud: Was it possible to spot the novel coronavirus in the city's sewage system?

Delatolla had spent years of his environmental engineering career exploring wastewater treatment technologies — not tracking viruses. He scoffed at the idea.

"I obnoxiously said, 'It won't work,'" the University of Ottawa professor recalled.

A few days later, Delatolla realized his wife was right. In late March, Dutch researchers announced wastewater surveillance efforts in the Netherlands were successfully identifying the virus behind COVID-19, even before official cases were reported. 

Delatolla and his laboratory team raced to get a similar system up and running. "By April 8th, 2020, we were able to get our first detection," he said. "That was our first detection of SARS-CoV-2 in wastewater in Canada."

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