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U of M researchers checking dorm sewage for signs of COVID-19

Eric Chaloux
Updated: September 21, 2020 06:21 PM
Created: September 21, 2020 05:51 PM

University of Minnesota’s Medical School researchers last week and early this week began taking sewage samples from some dorms on the Twin Cities and Duluth campuses, looking for signs of COVID-19 in the wastewater.

Experts have found people infected with COVID-19 can shed the virus from waste flushed down the toilet.

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"We're looking here at more of a community level," said Dr.Tim Schacker, Vice Dean for research at U of M’s Medical School. "We're trying to understand if we measure the virus in wastewater if that gives us some kind of signal about what's going on in the community."

Researchers said the goal would be to create an early warning system for spotting elevated levels of COVID-19 on campus.

"We're creating more tools to be able to understand the virus is spreading through the community, and what the impact is and what we might do to stop it," Schacker said.

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Researchers are not releasing which dorms are being used for the study on the campuses.

At Utah State University, researchers have been collecting samples at their dorms looking for the genetic fingerprint of the virus as a way to monitor COVID-19 infection trends when students returned to campus for the fall semester.

Utah State staff involved in the project said they follow a protocol developed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to extract a form of ribonucleic acid, or RNA.

Elevated levels of the virus were detected in the wastewater at four dorms, which led the Utah State to put those students in quarantine.

Utah State researchers said their early wastewater results are promising on spotting the coronavirus, which could possibly be used to help identify it before some people feel COVID-19 symptoms.

"Analyzing wastewater to monitor an infectious disease was implemented previously to monitor the polio virus," said Keith Roper, a Utah State professor of biological engineering in a recent post. "This is the first time, however, that wastewater monitoring has been performed using modern technologies at a broad scale during a pandemic."

“It might not tell you who is infected in the building but it will tell you whether you have an infection there, and that can be helpful from a public health standpoint in terms of targeting your clinical testing resources,” said Peter Grevatt, CEO of The Water Research Foundation. “Having an efficient way of identifying if the virus is there in the population or not can be very helpful for a university or for community decision-makers at the public health level who are trying to protect folks.”

The University of Minnesota is in the very early stage of their research.


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