A Thompson Rivers University professor has been building a genome sequencing facility on campus over the years, the only one of its kind in British Columbia outside of the Lower Mainland.
Located in the university’s science building, the lab has unique equipment and infrastructure that allows researchers to decode an organism’s DNA.
The lab has been focussed primarily on environmental remediation, agriculture and waste treatment to date. But amid the COVID-19 pandemic, its researchers are positioned for a unique opportunity — testing sewage to determine presence of SARS-CoV-2, the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 and has wreaked havoc around the globe.
“We thought, ‘We can do that,’” TRU biology professor Jonathan Van Hamme told KTW. “We have a lab with all the equipment.”
Van Hamme, along with TRU professor Eric Bottos, received a $50,000 federal research grant to conduct research in Kamloops.
Van Hamme, who teaches first-year biology, taught Bottos — a Kamloops kid — in the early 2000s.
Bottos then went on to study at McGill University and overseas. He became a molecular ecologist and conducted research in both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Bottos’ return to Kamloops and work with a former professor brings his career and education full circle in time to provide critical and potentially life-saving information during a global health crisis.
Together, the two are working with TRU graduates Breanne McAmmond and Madison Ellis and have partnered with the city, Urban Systems, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Strategy and a colleague of Van Hamme’s in Regina, working on similar research, to test sewage in Kamloops.
Using a thermal cycler in TRU’s genome sequencing lab — the same technology used by health officials to test nose swabs during the pandemic — the team plans to take samples from Kamloops Sewage Treatment Centre to determine presence of the virus in the community.
It is ideal in its ability to test populations en masse, much faster and less expensive than one-by-one human testing and capable of catching virus presence much faster.
“What’s nice about this method is you capture the whole population at a fraction of the cost,” Van Hamme said.
The testing, however, is not without limitations and questions remain about sampling — such as when and how often to do it.
It will not be able to tell how many people have the virus and it also has the potential to miss the infection, depending on when the sample was taken and who has flushed the toilet, at any given time.
Other issues that could potentially skew the data?
“Maybe a bus load of tourists drove through who have COVID-19,” Van Hamme said.
But Van Hamme said academics and municipalities around the world are conducting similar research, which he said first began in the Netherlands and has since found its way to Canada, as scientists around the globe collaborate during the pandemic.
Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry presented information in recent weeks gleaned from similar testing in Vancouver, which provided a picture of where the virus came from based on its strain and links to certain places, like Washington state.
Van Hamme said he has joined a network of researchers trading information and best practises.
Testing is anticipated to begin in the coming weeks, with baseline data to first be collected. Data will be handed over to the Ministry of Health, with Van Hamme citing privacy issues in publishing the information widely. He said the information gleaned, combined with person-by-person testing, will provide health officials a clearer picture of where the virus is circulating.
The research grant is enough to cover supplies to test sewage samples in Kamloops weekly for between six and eight months.
Van Hamme hopes to have enough tests completed to inform in time for a second wave, anticipated this fall. He is grateful for support from the city and Urban Systems, which are donating time to the project.
“Everyone wants to do something helpful,” Van Hamme said.