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sector_ico_Fisheries_trans Fisheries & Aquaculture

New tools to forecast and prevent norovirus contamination of farmed oysters

GEN009
  • Project Leaders: Timothy Green, Darlene Winterburn
  • Institutions: Vancouver Island University (VIU)
  • Budget: $312470
  • Program/Competition: GeneSolve
  • Genome Centre(s): Genome British Columbia
  • Fiscal Year: 2019
  • Status: Active

Noroviruses are a group of viruses that are the leading cause of non-bacterial acute gastroenteritis in humans. These viruses are highly contagious and are spread from person-to-person or by fecal contamination of food or water. While norovirus outbreaks in BC, in 2004, 2010, 2016/2017 and 2018, have been linked to the consumption of raw oysters, the source of contamination is unknown. Norovirus is not a natural marine virus. During the outbreak in 2016/2017 about 400 people were affected and the economic impact for the BC shellfish industry was estimated at over $9 million. Furthermore, worldwide media attention reduced price and demand (estimated 20%) and left BC’s shellfish industry with a tarnished reputation locally and internationally. Oysters are currently not routinely tested for norovirus before harvesting as the tests are time-consuming, expensive and require trained personnel and advanced equipment. Consequently, potentially norovirus-contaminated oysters will reach consumers and farms are only closed if an outbreak occurs. There is an urgent need to understand what is causing a norovirus outbreak as well as to use this data to ensure appropriate response mechanisms. 

Researchers from the Vancouver Island University in collaboration with the BC Shellfish Growers Association will combine genomic tools with real-time pollution detection to identify the source, dispersal mechanisms and persistence of norovirus in Baynes Sound which is the leading oyster producing region in BC. The project will determine whether a submersible fluorometer that detects human sewage pollution can be used as farm-based, real-time detection systems for norovirus. An early warning system would enable the BC shellfish industry to make faster, more informed decisions on whether to safely harvest their shellfish. This project expects to deliver new capacity to the BC shellfish industry to manage and prevent multimillion-dollar losses associated with norovirus contamination of farmed oysters.