SASKATOON -- After a successful study last year that found new cases of COVID-19 can be predicted in wastewater, a research team at the University of Saskatchewan has been granted $137,392 from the Public Health Agency of Canada for more research - and some new partnerships.

Researchers at the U of S will partner with the City of Saskatoon and the Indigenous Technical Services Co-operative (ITSC) which includes: Agency Chiefs Tribal Council, File Hills Qu’Appelle Tribal Council, Saskatoon Tribal Council, Touchwood Agency Tribal Council and Yorkton Tribal Council.

“In partnership with the City of Saskatoon and Indigenous communities, we will gather data that will enable health officials and communities to better plan for surges in COVID-19 cases so that they can implement quarantines and other measures,” U of S toxicologist John Giesy said in a news release.

“Even a few days of early warning in communities can be critical to the success of these pandemic preparedness measures, especially for rapidly evolving variants.”

Researchers will test samples at the Saskatoon Wastewater Treatment Plant three days a week for 27 weeks. Samples from First Nations partners will be examined weekly for 27 weeks. Data collected will be relayed to health authorities.

“Wastewater monitoring for COVID-19 will help our member First Nations respond quickly to any positive detections in our sewage. We are hopeful the knowledge gained through this study will lead to more extended wastewater monitoring in the near future for other First Nations communities,” ITSC Executive Director Tim Isnana said in the release.

Kerry McPhedran, one of the researchers and an associate professor, said he is excited to work with the ITSC, with whom he has had much experience.

Although seeing spikes in COVID-19 numbers won’t work the same in a small community as it does for a city, it will still let the proper authorities act quickly, he said.

“We’re just going to be looking for presence or absence of the virus there, we’re not going to see the same trends in the city,” McPhedran said.

“If you have an absence, great, you don’t have any problems. If you do end up having a spike where you see COVID in a community you can inform the public authorities there. If it’s 150 people you can try and track down where it came in at. You can’t do that in the city.”

McPhedran said that the money from the Public Health Agency of Canada came just in time as they were running out of options for funding. He said now they are excited to work on the project for the next six months, but they are hoping to receive more funding down the road to continue their work.

“It’s going to be very valuable in the future for the city and the province and for everyone to have it. It’s really kind of an easy, low hanging fruit because wastewater is always going to be available to test.”