Story at a glance:

  • University of California-San Diego is using a tool to detect viruses in feces.
  • The feces tested in sewage can help identify and isolate those who are infected or those not showing symptoms.
  • COVID-19 affects the body’s respiratory system and stomach, and its viral RNA can be detected in excrement days before symptoms appear.

In addition to implementing common public health measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, the University of California-San Diego is also deploying a more unusual technique: examining the campus’s sewage system. 

The Ocean County Register and Kaiser Health News reports that university officials have already begun using the new testing tool — and it’s yielding positive results. 

The tool alerted researchers to about 85 percent of cases in dorms before they were even diagnosed, according to a soon-to-be published study reported by Kaiser News. 


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The feces tested in sewage can help identify and isolate those who are infected or those not experiencing symptoms. Researchers showed that, using this method, they could detect even a single infected, asymptomatic person living or working in a large building, according to KPBS. 

The school’s testing program is similar to ones throughout California, and is also being used in Portland, Maine.

"University campuses especially benefit from wastewater surveillance as a means to avert COVID-19 outbreaks, as they're full of largely asymptomatic populations, and are potential hot spots for transmission that necessitate frequent diagnostic testing," first author Smruthi Karthikeyan, an environmental engineer and postdoctoral researcher at UCSD School of Medicine, told KPBS.

It is important to note that viruses can be detected in feces before symptoms show up in a person — if at all — serving as an early warning system for outbreaks.

The method is so efficient that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has created a federal database of wastewater samples, according to Kaiser News. 

"We think this can really provide valuable data, not just for covid, but for a lot of diseases," Amy Kirby, a microbiologist leading the CDC effort, told Kaiser News.

COVID-19 affects the body’s respiratory system and stomach, and its viral RNA can be detected in excrement days before symptoms appear. 


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Published on Aug 18, 2021