It is globally recognized that genomics and other ‘omics technologies are vital tools that need to be widely adopted and utilized in our fight against pandemics.
Ontario Genomics worked on the frontlines of the global COVID-19 pandemic from the very beginning to break down silos, facilitate connections, and leverage the expertise of Ontario’s genomics sector in the fight against the virus.
When COVID-19 was declared to be a global health emergency in early 2020, international and national borders began to close, dramatically affecting day-to-day life. Scientists around the world scrambled to understand SARS-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the ongoing pandemic, how it spreads, and how it made thousands and soon millions of people sick.
The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on the immediate value that genomics brings to the healthcare system, to patient care, and to inform public health policies. In response to viral emergence, Ontario Genomics acted rapidly to mobilize Ontario’s existing genomic surveillance capacity and data expertise through a coordinated, province-wide approach. We supported the province’s direct COVID-19 response by applying our expertise to create a pan-Ontario consortium, the ONCoV Genomics Coalition.
The ONCoV Genomics Coalition brought over thirty Ontario-based organizations together, including Public Health Ontario, academic sequencing Centers, hospitals, and research institutes, to accelerate the characterization of the SARS-CoV-2 virus across the province.
As the pandemic spread, genomic surveillance efforts enabled the tracking or genetic changes in the virus over time and identified so-called Variants of Concern in the viral RNA. Genomic data generated from the surveillance efforts have supported local and regional public health interventions. Moreover, genomics became the technology platform that enabled COVID-19 diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccine development.
In April 2020, Dr. Robert Delatolla’s team first detected the virus behind COVID-19 in city sewage. As of today, wastewater is being monitored by many groups across Canada, for coronavirus variants and sub-variants along with various other infectious agents such as influenza virus, respiratory syncytial virus and Mpox.
“A silver lining of the pandemic has been the rapid advancement of scientific knowledge in select areas. Wastewater surveillance is one of those areas that has experienced a remarkable advancement during the pandemic, followed by global recognition and application. It is imperative that Ontario and Canada continue to invest in this area so that we can build on the important advancements in wastewater surveillance achieved here in Canada and across the world to protect Canadians during future pandemics and also to mitigate health inequities that have been exasperated during the pandemic.”
–Dr. Rob Delatolla, Project Co-Lead, Carleton University
A University of Guelph team led by Dr. Lawrence Goodridge provided weekly testing at all residences on campus, with results posted on a comprehensive public dashboard that estimates the risk level in each residence. Their work not only proved to be an effective tool in estimating the spread of COVID-19 on campus but also became one of the first in Canada to launch surveillance of campus wastewater.
In the summer of 2021, Ontario Genomics, Genome Canada, and Illumina invested in a first-of-its-kind SARS-CoV-2 wastewater surveillance initiative across Ontario through the COVID-19 Regional Genomics Initiative (CORGI). The cutting-edge project – Ontario SARS-CoV-2 Variants of Concern Surveillance in Wastewater Pilot Program – is enhancing critical province-wide coordination and viral surveillance and supporting provincial and national efforts to understand how SARS-CoV-2 variants are emerging in Ontario and spreading over time.
Led by Drs. Goodridge and Delatolla, the University of Guelph, University of Ottawa and Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), in collaboration with the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation and Parks (MECP) and researchers across 11 different sites in Ontario, are spearheading this game-changing initiative to monitor and analyze COVID-19 in wastewater to improve public health response and better understand outbreaks in communities across Ontario.
“I am proud of Ontario’s leadership in SARS-CoV-2 surveillance in wastewater. Through a coordinated approach, leveraging the province’s deep genomics resources and capacity, this project will provide early signals of worrisome viral occurrence and changes to equip public health with evidence for timely decision-making,” said Dr. Bettina Hamelin, President and CEO, Ontario Genomics. “Our end-to-end view of Ontario’s genomics ecosystem has enabled Ontario Genomics to break down siloes and harness genomics expertise in the fight against COVID-19.”
Building on the last two years of research, teams across the country — and around the world — have been using human waste to monitor rising and falling coronavirus levels, and this approach can also be used to track the viruses behind Mpox and polio, as well as other infectious agents.
For example, Dr. Delatolla’s team became the first in Canada and first in the world to identify influenza virus in city-wide and neighbourhood wastewaters last fall and the first in the world to sub-type influenza. It identified an outbreak that coincided with a sudden rise in COVID-19 cases in the Ottawa just as the provincial mask mandates were lifted in most places last March.
Sewage monitoring is furthermore capable of spotting antimicrobial-resistant bacteria, levels of pharmaceutical, recreational and/or illegal drug use, or other infectious diseases such as tuberculosis. Researchers say the public health possibilities are boundless.
The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the importance of expanding Canada’s own capacity for developing and manufacturing advanced diagnostics, vaccines, and biologics to make healthcare more effective while fighting the current pandemic, fueling economic recovery, and preparing for future disease outbreaks.
The need for ‘made-in-Canada’ solutions to enhance Canada’s supply chain agility and self-sustainability has grown in these times of increased demand. Canada must build the capacity now to deal with future pandemics, ensuring we are prepared and have flexible domestic manufacturing that can quickly pivot to address shortages.
Our team at Ontario Genomics is proud to have helped build the Ontario genomics infrastructure supporting Ontario’s response. Ontario Genomics exists to create industry-led partnerships, to commercialize made-in-Ontario technologies that save lives and generate jobs in every corner of the province. With the right strategy, right partnerships, and right support from the government, we can build something better out of this tragedy and help protect the lives and livelihoods of Ontarians for generations to come.
Congratulations to all our other successful project leaders.