Kansas University Gives Community Early COVID-19 Warning

July 27, 2020

KU’s wastewater testing project could give Kansas communities early COVID-19 warning

Early results from a project in Kansas show tests of a community’s wastewater can detect COVID-19 outbreaks approximately a week before individual testing would show an increase in cases.

The project was launched in the spring by the University of Kansas School of Engineering and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, according to the Kansas City Star. The wastewater in about a dozen communities in eastern Kansas were tested to see if the coronavirus was present in the area. The testing also determines the severity of the outbreak and has since expanded into areas of western Kansas.

Belinda Sturm, associate vice chancellor for research at KU, started looking into intersections of viruses’ genetic material and wastewater about 15 years ago. Sturm already had the equipment and skillset to run tests in Kansas when initial studies about coronavirus and wastewater were released.

“For every person that you can stop from spreading it to two more people or four more people, that greatly reduces the size of that outbreak,” said Sturm. “So, a one week lead time with how many people an infected person can expose can greatly reduce case numbers.”

According to Sturm, researchers and public health officials are still figuring out how to use the information.

It currently costs about $500 to analyze each sample within a few days of collection, reported the Kansas City Star. KU researchers are looking for ways to conduct the tests faster and cheaper so that tests can be done more frequently. 

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Cristina Tuser