GUNTER: Alberta's poop predicts the peak of the Omicron infections is near

Lorne Gunter 3 minute read January 14, 2022

Gold Bar Wastewater Treatment Plant, 10977 50 St. in Edmonton on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. Alberta is currently using wastewater testing to monitor the spread of the COVID-19 Omicron variant. Photo by David Bloom

The University of Alberta and the University of Calgary co-sponsor a research project that studies Albertans’ poop.

Well, OK, the researchers study the wastewater of the communities we live, but it amounts to pretty much the same thing.

Now you can’t even threaten your high school kids: “If you don’t study hard and get into university, you’re going to end up picking up other people’s poo for the rest of your life.” ‘Cuz in Alberta you have to get into university and be near the top of your class before the professor chooses you for the honour of studying other people’s poo.

Not surprisingly, you can tell a lot about the habits and health of a community by what microscopic organisms are found floating around in its sewage.

Researchers around the world discovered early in the pandemic that they could reliably predict when a community was going to have a COVID outbreak. Seven to 10 days before cases would rise, there would be a spike in COVID genetic material in the wastewater.

By re-examining months-old wastewater samples, for instance, researchers in Nova Scotia determined this week that Omicron was already spreading in that city before it was identified in South Africa.

The same is true in reverse, about a week before a community hits its peak of cases, the amount of COVID RNA in its wastewater begins to decline.

In South Africa, where Omicron was first detected on Nov. 24, the levels of COVID infection in the wastewater began falling just about a month later. Right around Christmas, levels dropped dramatically. About a week after that, daily new infections plummeted, too.

New Omicron cases now are 70 per cent lower in South Africa than they were just three weeks ago.

Not only is Omicron super quick to spread, it seems to dissipate rapidly, too.

The same is true in eastern American cities where Omicron was first detected in North America.

In Boston, New York and Chicago this new variant of COVID is already on the decline — something researchers expected because wastewater RNA levels began to fall in those places between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

It’s a pattern that has also repeated itself in the U.K., causing Britain’s National Health Service to speculate that the peak there may have passed.

So what is the UofA/UofC joint wastewater project detecting in Alberta’s effluent?

We may be nearing our Omicron peak, too.

It’s too early to say definitely. Infection levels in what Albertans flush down the toilet daily are still fluctuating — up one day, down the next and vice versa.

But at least they are no longer rising meteorically, as they were late last month and early this month.

From Dec. 20 to Jan. 3, levels of COVID infection in Edmonton’s wastewater soared. In just those two weeks, it increased by 2,000 per cent.

On Jan. 3, levels were three-and-a-half times higher than at the peak of Wave 4 in September.

As of Tuesday this week, they had fallen a third from that Jan. 3 high.

The levels have flitted around a bit in the last couple of weeks, here and elsewhere in the province.

For example, in the far south end of Calgary, levels dropped 40 per cent between Dec. 29 and Jan. 4, before recovering to near their earlier levels by the 9th.

So it is impossible to pick a date and proclaim, “This is the day Omicron peaked in Alberta!” (Trumpet fanfare.)

But the point is, the 20-fold increases detected in our sewage in December are over and at worst our infection levels have stabilized.

Daily infections in humans may continue to rise until the end of the month, but our poop is predicting the peak is near.

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