ECU researchers discover new way to detect coronavirus through building ventilation systems

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WITN) -Researchers at East Carolina University’s Brody School of Medicine have found a new way to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 by testing the air passing through building ventilation systems.

The discovery could lead to earlier detection of the virus, improved quarantine protocols, reduced transmission and fewer outbreaks.

Dr. Sinan Sousan, an assistant professor in Brody’s Department of Public Health and Research Faculty at North Carolina Agromedicine Institute, and Dr. Rachel Roper, a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology with an extensive background studying coronaviruses, spearheaded the effort to learn whether SARS-CoV-2 could be detected through the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in student dorms.

Their research was recently published in The American Journal of Infection Control, and represents a breakthrough in the way the virus can be detected before an individual tests positive.

Researchers collected samples from two large student dorms and an isolation suite housing students that had tested positive for COVID-19 several times per week for more than three months beginning in January 2021.

Sousan’s team collected a total of 248 air samples, testing four collection methods that deposited samples into small filters, saline solutions and cartridges that were then preserved and transported to Roper’s lab for RT-PCR analysis. The testing revealed the presence of SARS-COV-2 in the isolation suite air samples 100% of the time. In the dorms where students were not already in COVID-19 isolation, researchers were able to detect the virus in the air samples 75% of the time when students on the same floor later tested positive via nasal swab.

Researchers say similarly to testing a building’s wastewater, implementing building air sampling on a broader scale could allow for earlier detection of the virus, particularly in shared spaces.

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