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Sewage surveillance: Virginia Tech testing wastewater to track COVID-19 on campus

They’re testing water from three locations with a goal of ramping up to 15

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Virginia Tech researchers are going underground to try to slow the spread of COVID-19 on campus.

“One of the beauties of going and looking at wastewater is essentially that we get a signal before people necessarily are obviously sick,” said Peter Vikesland, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech.

Vikesland’s team has been working on the sewage surveillance since early summer.

Daily tests on wastewater, mostly from residence halls, give them a snapshot of what’s happening in a population before anyone even shows symptoms.

“Anybody that’s infected with COVID is emitting this virus in their bodily fluids and essentially it goes down the drain and we have the ability to go and detect the RNA for the virus,” Vikesland said.

Catching COVID early and stopping the spread in its tracks is a strategy universities across the country are deploying, including UVA.

“The goal is to use the dorm wastewater as a pooled sample so that we can surveillance for COVID as opposed to having each individual student come give us a test or have a test,” said Lisa Colosi Peterson, a wastewater treatment engineer at UVA.

Back in Blacksburg, they’ve already had some positive hits using the sewage strategy.

There’s still a lot of work to be done to ramp up testing but researchers say it could be a game changer.

“It really is an ability to think about how do we protect the entire campus community from a lot of different infectious diseases,” Vikesland said.

Right now, they’re testing water from about three locations with a goal of ramping up to 15.


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