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Virginia Tech researchers begin testing campus wastewater for COVID-19

A team of Virginia Tech researchers will begin testing wastewater at 15 campus sites for the presence of the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), enabling the university to more rapidly identify and respond to positive tests.

The advance will allow the university to monitor clusters of campus buildings on a daily basis, testing for the presence of the virus in fecal matter. If the testing shows positive results, the university can then conduct targeted testing among individuals in those buildings to zero in on possible infections. The idea is to more proactively identify virus clusters, even when individuals may be asymptomatic.

“The general idea is that people who are sick with COVID-19 excrete the virus or viral RNA in their feces, and it ends up in sewers,” said Peter Vikesland, professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That signal can be detected for a period of time after people are sick, and you can potentially detect it before you start to see clinical cases.”

The team — led by Vikesland, civil and environmental engineering professor Amy Pruden, and Ph.D. candidate Ayella Maile-Moskowitz — has been conducting sampling at five campus sites to test the process, but is just beginning to test samples. Now, Virginia Tech’s Office of the Vice President for Research and Innovation and the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering have invested $200,000 to expand the project to 15 sites on the Blacksburg campus. Most, but not all, of the sampling sites focus on clusters of residence halls.

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