wastewater testing
Human waste can be tested early for coronavirus.

As students return to colleges and universities across the country amid the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers are getting down and dirty in an effort to control coronavirus outbreaks.

At the University of Arizona, sewage water was sampled and tested for traces of coronavirus in the wastewater. Samples from the Likins dorm at Arizona came back positive, according to KOLD News 13. Tests were conducted on 311 students and staff in that dorm, and two came back positive. This led to quarantining those who tested positive and conducting contact tracing. Hopefully, the early detection prevented a bigger outbreak.

According to Dr. Ian Pepper, director of the University of Arizona West Center, tracing sewage water can be one of the first methods to detect a resurgence of the virus. He told the TV station that the method is accurate, and it can pick up a single positive case in a group of 10,000.

People shed the virus into the sewage system while using the restroom, and that waste can be tested as an early method to detect the virus.

“Sewage surveillance is a leading indicator as opposed to deaths, that’s a lagging indicator. That’s the last thing you see,” Pepper said.

Other colleges and universities around the country are using wastewater samples to try and fight the coronavirus.

  • Researchers at the University of Colorado are setting up an anonymous observational network to monitor the wastewater leaving residence halls on campus as part of an effort to detect and intercept community spread of COVID-19. Read more.
  • Data collected at Utah State University through a wastewater monitoring program detected cases of coronavirus at four residence halls. “Analyzing wastewater to monitor an infectious disease was implemented previously to monitor the polio virus,” said Keith Roper, a USU professor of biological engineering who’s leading the study. “This is the first time, however, that wastewater monitoring has been performed using modern technologies at a broad scale during a pandemic.” Read more.
  • Researchers from New Mexico State University are developing protocols to test wastewater samples as a possible method for early detection of SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Read more.
  • A team at UNC-Charlotte is also invested in campus-based research testing and is preparing to sample and test wastewater from various campus locations as an early-warning system to locate the presence of COVID-19. Read more