Wastewater system detects coronavirus at University of Arizona dorm

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A positive sample detecting coronavirus in wastewater at a University of Arizona (UA) dormitory, was able to help prevent a spread of COVID-19 last week, UA officials said during a press conference last Thursday.

The wastewater system detected a heavy viral load of the novel coronavirus in one of the samples tested last week from Likins Hall dorm, university president Dr. Robert Robbins said during the press conference. The university is using the wastewater analyzing system to detect the presence of the novel coronavirus on campus, a measure led by Dr. Ian Pepper, the director of the university’s Water and Energy Sustainable Technology Center who used the system worldwide to detect poliovirus.

The university decided to use the system to detect asymptomatic cases of COVID-19 before they potentially infect the general population, the university’s president said during the media briefing.


Pepper alerted the UA officials to the positive sample early last week, Robbins said during the press conference.

“We went over and tested all the students and staff that worked there in Linkins. We found two positive cases, which we moved over to isolation," Robbins said, adding approximately 311 individuals were tested and contact tracing was implemented.

Wastewater system detects coronavirus at University of Arizona dorm

TUCSON, AZ/USA – APRIL 11, 2019: Unidentified Individuals on the campus lawn of the University of Arizona.

Dr. Richard Carmona, who leads the university’s reentry task force, during the media conference credited the wastewater system for stopping a potential outbreak at the student dorm. Carmona said Pepper and the team of university epidemiologists came together and informed him of the cases.

“Nobody would have known that otherwise. With this early detection, we jumped on it right away, tested those youngsters, and got them the appropriate isolation where they needed to be. Think about if we had missed it, and if we waited for them to become symptomatic and they stayed in the dorm for days or a week during the incubation period, how many people would have been infected," he said.

The university officials said the wastewater-based epidemiology is a unique way the college is containing the spread of novel coronavirus.

“This wastewater is pretty slick," Carmona added during the conference. “Who would have ever thought that monitoring the effluent from certain buildings and being able then to detect viruses in that effluent before anybody’s even sick before you even know it?”


Robbins also was impressed with the wastewater system analyses’ sensitivity and its ability to prevent transmission of novel coronavirus on campus.

"What we really need to find out is who are the people who are asymptomatic that are positive,” Robbins said. “We think this is going to be a very valuable tool to help us get out in front."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), asymptomatic individuals infected with COVID-19 can transmit the virus and previous reports said the CDC's "best estimate" is 40 percent of COVID-19 infections are asymptomatic.


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