U-M researchers look for coronavirus in campus environment, potential links to infection risks

August 28, 2020
Written By:
Nardy Baeza Bickel

Studying samples from sewers, wiping down classrooms and buses, and taking measurements of air.

Researchers at the University of Michigan School of Public Health are performing these tasks to determine how much coronavirus is present in the environment on campus, and whether that has any relationship on COVID-19 infection rates within the university community.

They hope this approach will provide an additional perspective from the work of other researchers, which has focused mostly on epidemiological approaches such as tracking infection rates.

“Our idea was, let’s go out and actually sample around campus in the air, on surfaces and also in sewage, and see where—or if—we find the virus,” said Rick Neitzel, U-M associate professor of environmental health sciences.

“By making measurements before the start of the semester, and then continuing to sample the same locations over time as students, staff and faculty come back to campus, we can see how the amount of virus in the environment relates to infection rates. The two must be related, but nobody has looked at this yet.”

Philip Szornyi and Anthony Shourds collect sewage samples behind U-M's Campus Safety Services Building building in August, before students move-in started Aug. 24th. Image credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

Philip Szornyi and Anthony Shourds collect sewage samples behind U-M’s Campus Safety Services Building building in August, before students move-in started Aug. 24th. Image credit: Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography

The research team also includes professors Chuanwu Xi, Tim Dvonch and Alfred Franzblau, all of the U-M School of Public Health, and a few of their group members. The university’s Office of Environment Health & Safety provides assistance for sampling and logistics.

“While a few studies have monitored the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces and aerosols in hospital rooms of COVID patients and other suspected sites with contamination, few reported studies have monitored the SARS-CoV-2 contamination in regular public spaces or elsewhere within communities,” said Xi, an environmental microbiologist whose research focuses on microbes in the environment and human health.

“As a result, there is a knowledge gap and information lacking about exposures in workplaces, education settings, transportation and residential settings, and a need to better understand predictors of exposure risk in such settings.”

The team’s effort is to explore developing additional tools for early warning and early intervention.

“We are working to develop a platform that can be applied to study and monitor other microbial pathogens in the environment during and prior to potential future pandemics,” Xi said.

Many efforts are ongoing around the world to explore the use of municipal wastewater testing for early warning and indicating the scale of an outbreak in a big community.

The researchers are quick to point out that due to what will likely be a low viral load, they may not be able to detect viral particles in the samples collected, and they might need to adjust their sampling strategies. Also, the pilot program is not set up to provide virus viability and infectivity data.

“You may have seen in the press people saying, ‘Well, how much of a dose of this virus does it take to actually infect you?’ That’s an open question that our study will not answer,” Franzblau said. “Also, our study will only be taking samples in public spaces on campus, not in individual offices, dorm rooms or other private locations on campus (e.g., bathrooms).”

Dvonch said, however, that since “the U-M campus has many public venues that closely emulate those in the wider community, results of our study should provide exposure information generalizable to a variety of public, residential and educational settings.”


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