Research project to analyze human viruses in Winnipeg’s rivers

Does wastewater that’s been cleaned by Winnipeg’s sewage treatment plants carry viruses – including the virus that causes COVID-19 – when it’s released into our rivers?

Jhannelle Francis plans to find out. Francis is a UM master’s student in microbiology and a participant in the Visual and Automated Disease Analytics (VADA) Program – a training program that equips graduate students with cutting-edge skills to analyze health-related data.

For her master’s thesis, Francis will test treated wastewater for the presence of at least eight human RNA and DNA viruses, including SARS-CoV-2, which causes the current pandemic disease.

She will compare the results with how clean the same water is considered to be when it’s quality-tested in the traditional way: by screening it for coliform bacteria, such as E. coli.

“I’ll be studying the viral particles in so-called ‘pure’ effluent water,” says Francis, who completed her bachelor of science at the University of Toronto last year.

Francis’s thesis supervisor is Dr. Miguel Uyaguari, an assistant professor and Indigenous scholar of microbiology who specializes in wastewater and water-quality research. Both say the gold-standard bacterial methods of testing effluent are no longer adequate to ensure the protection of human health.

“With new technologies and tools enabling scientists to study viruses in more detail, viral particles may be better indicators of water quality than bacteria,” Uyaguari says. “But they haven’t been studied very much, partly because there’s a lack of databases to help scientists identify them. We’re trying to add to the body of knowledge on using viruses as biomarkers.”

Studies in a number of countries have detected SARS-CoV-2 in human feces, sewage and treated wastewater, but this study is the first to look for it in Manitoba wastewater.

Although there is no evidence of anyone being infected with COVID-19 through water, little is known about the risks of human viruses in aquatic ecosystems, and research on them is greatly needed, Uyaguari says.

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