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Ontario pulls plug on COVID-19 wastewater surveillance

Premier Doug Ford’s government is scrapping Ontario’s program for sampling wastewater to monitor the level of COVID-19 in the population.

The program measures how much of the virus that causes COVID-19 is circulating around the province and is run by a dozen universities and research sites, through funding from the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks.

In a statement, a provincial official said the move will “avoid duplication” with a federal program.  

“The federal government conducts wastewater surveillance across Canada and is moving to expand its sampling to additional sites in Ontario,” said Environment Ministry spokesperson Gary Wheeler in an email to CBC News. 

“Ontario is working to support this expansion while winding down the provincial wastewater surveillance initiative,” he said. 

Public health officials are criticizing the move as short-sighted.

WATCH | How scientists use wastewater: 

Wastewater helps scientists track infectious diseases

2 years ago

Duration 3:21

The COVID-19 pandemic showed scientists how useful wastewater could be to track infectious diseases, now it’s being used to help identify other outbreaks including monkeypox and polio.

“This has been critical information not only for COVID-19, but other infectious disease threats,” said Dr. Thomas Piggott, the medical officer of health in Peterborough, in a series of posts on X, formerly Twitter. 

“The program costs are a small fraction of what individual-level testing for infectious disease are,” Piggott said. 

$15M program

Provincial budget documents show the program cost $15 million in 2023-24 and was budgeted for $10.8 million in 2024-25.   

The provincial Ministry of Health will be able to analyze Ontario’s wastewater data through a data-sharing agreement with the Public Health Agency of Canada, officials said

Last year, as Ontario entered the annual flu season, the province expanded the program to monitor influenza virus levels. 

When the Ford government launched the program in 2021, then-minister Jeff Yurek trumpeted it as a kind of early-warning system for detecting growth in COVID-19 cases. 

Close-up of a gloved hand holding a test tube and syringe,
Wastewater is tested for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Well before the COVID-19 pandemic began, scientists and public health officials sampled sewage to monitor the spread of diseases at a community level. (LuminUltra)

The latest figures from Public Health Ontario show province-wide levels of the virus that causes COVID-19 to be up slightly from the same time last year, but well down from their annual peak in December.

Ontario’s statistics show 1,991 people died of COVID-19 in 2023, the fewest in any calendar year since the pandemic began, and 450 deaths so far in 2024.

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