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ECU researchers discover new way to detect coronavirus through ventilation systems

East Carolina University News Services

Researchers at East Carolina University in Greenville found a new way to detect the COVID-19 causing coronavirus: by testing the air in buildings’ ventilation systems. PRE’s Meredith Radford has more.


Dr. Rachel Roper, professor of immunology and microbiology in ECU’s Brody School of Medicine and Dr. Sinan Sousan, assistant professor in Brody’s Department of Public Health led the study to learn whether SARS-CoV-2 could be detected through the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems in student dorms. Roper says this would be a way to provide early surveillance for COVID-19 infections.   


“As soon as you detect any, you would then go in and sample the humans through clinical nasal-pharyngeal swabs or through saliva testing and test the humans and figure out where the virus is coming from. And then that could keep it from spreading.”   


Sousan says they sampled two large dorms where they didn’t know if anyone had COVID-19, and one isolation dorm where people had already tested positive. In the COVID-19 isolation building, they detected SARS-CoV-2 100% of the time — and in the dorms where students weren’t already known to have COVID-19, it was detected 75% of the time when students on the same floor later tested positive.   


Roper says this can work in other congregate-living facilities, like prisons, but it can also work for schools or office buildings, where people gather during the day or for hours at a time. She says anyone can use the protocols from their study to start testing air samples for any airborne virus, including the flu.    


This study is published in The American Journal of Infection Control and was funded with COVID-19 relief funds the university received from the state. Roper says they’re discussing the best path for future research on this topic.   


For Public Radio East, I’m Meredith Radford.   


ECU is a financial supporter of PRE. 

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