UNCW researchers search for signs of COVID-19 in campus wastewater

Researchers at UNCW are working with teams across the country to develop alternative ways to monitor levels of COVID-19.
Updated: Aug. 31, 2020 at 5:30 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Researchers at UNCW are working with teams across the country to develop alternative ways to monitor levels of COVID-19.

UNCW faculty members were invited to join a team of researchers across the state back in early May to participate in a project that uses sewage samples to paint a more complete picture of the impact the virus has on the community.

Scientists collect samples from CFPUA and manholes on campus three times a week and test the wastewater for the RNA of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

“What we’re doing is really relevant, very important, very timely and we’re really excited by that. We have the opportunity to do something that has immediate value, that addresses what are essentially life and death problems,” said professor Lawrence Cahoon from UNCW’s Department of Biology and Marine Biology. “Its really exciting for us and we’re happy to make the contribution. We’ve put a lot of time and energy into this,”

The state as a whole was granted more than $1.7 million in CARES act money to move forward with the research. UNCW’s faculty was granted $75,000 to fund its role in the project. Schools like UNC Charlotte and universities as far away as Michigan, Arizona and Utah have taken on similar projects.

This testing has several advantages over other ways of measuring the coronavirus; results come back quickly. Signs of the virus show up in a person’s waste whether they’re showing symptoms or not and the data doesn’t jeopardize personal information.

While you can’t determine who is infected, researchers hope it will eventually allow them to see bigger picture changes and figure out whether levels of the virus are increasing or decreasing in certain communities.

Professor Cahoon says it’s a tool they’re still working to refine, but it has shown great promise so far.

“Given the issues that we’ve seen with individual testing—delays, false positives and false negatives, things like that—it promises to give us important information that will be difficult to get in such a timely fashion and quantitatively trustworthy enough on which to base decisions,” said Cahoon.

Above all, the biology and marine biology professor stresses that the scientific community as a whole is pulling together to find creative solutions to the problems facing the entire world.

“There’s an enormous amount of time, effort, thought being put into this by a very large array of science professionals. We care very deeply about this and we’re at risk too and we really want to do it. We can help solve this problem. It’s a very difficult challenge. I don’t think the human species has faced this kind of challenge for a very, very long time, if ever.”

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