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OU research team searches for COVID-19 in wastewater, plans to use results to lessen virus' spread

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OU researchers (from left to right) Katrin Kuhn, Jason Vogel, Bradley Stevenson and Halley Reeves have helped monitor wastewater on campus for traces of COVID-19 to gauge the presences of the virus.

This semester, OU tested the wastewater on campus, searching for traces of COVID-19 to take preventative measures against its spread in campus facilities. 

The multidisciplinary research team in charge of the project tested wastewater from seven key locations across campus, starting in August. The team took water from areas that corresponded to a specific dorm, group of dorms, or key areas of the Norman campus and tested those samples for COVID-19.

The samples are assessed for SARS-CoV-2 RNA, which is the virus genome. Katrin Kuhn, one of the members of the research team, said in a message to The Daily that people who are infected with the virus excrete these viral particles in their feces, sometimes before symptoms are even developed. 

“In order to detect the RNA, the water samples are analyzed using the RT-qPCR assay,” Kuhn said. “The RT-qPCR assay is the ‘gold standard’ test used to detect the virus from individuals.”

The research team consistently found traces of the coronavirus in the wastewater on campus, however the team said there seems to be a general downward trend in the virus particles they have found. This is reflected in the university’s case numbers throughout October. Starting in November, however, case numbers have started trending upward again in Oklahoma according to the university dashboard, forcing Gov. Kevin Stitt to implement the first new COVID-19 restrictions the state has issued since March.

Kuhn said testing the wastewater can help the university target its actions toward more specific high-risk areas of campus.

“Wastewater monitoring can also act as a driver for targeted testing (e.g. less testing in some areas, more testing in others) to save valuable resources,” Kuhn said. “For a university in particular, high levels of wastewater viral load from a single dorm can indicate that an outbreak is occurring and that testing of students in that dorm should be increased/intensified.”

Wastewater testing has been used in the past to help identify and prevent other viral diseases, such as the flu or hepatitis. Kuhn said wastewater testing is beneficial because it is independent of whether people are tested and how many tests are taken in a given area.

After being asked if the university will be using the information that the research team has received to take precautions after the winter break and next semester, Director of Media Relations Kesha Keith said in an email to The Daily that the information is being used to develop resources to test, track, monitor and lessen the spread of the virus. She also recommends those who plan on coming back after Thanksgiving break get tested at the voluntary testing sites on campus when they return.

A full list of precautions taken by the university can be found here.

The university’s wastewater testing follows a multitude of universities that have also started to test their wastewater for the virus, starting with Arizona State University, which began testing earlier this year.

“We have tested wastewater in Tempe for a while before COVID-19 hit us, to understand the general health and well-being of the population,” Nivedita Biyani, an ASU spokesperson, said in an email to The Daily. “We generally had a very proactive policy with regard to COVID-19 measures on campus, but they were not directly the result of wastewater testing.” 

The research team said they feel the work they are producing is creating a strong impact for Oklahomans affected by the virus.

“We all agree that our work has strong potential to impact how Oklahomans are affected by the pandemic and are excited to expand it into new locations across the state,” Kuhn said.

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