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Utah researchers look to the sewage system to better track coronavirus

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SALT LAKE CITY – As many doctors try to find new medications to help treat COVID-19 across the country, some researchers at the University of Utah are trying to find new ways to track it and destroy it.  Their coronavirus research is taking them to some terribly messy places, like sewage. 

It’s a tricky question to answer.  How can you track the movement of a virus if the carriers don’t know they have it?

Well… you could always check the sewage system.

“For good or ill, there is a lot of information in your sewage water,” says University of Utah Environmental Engineering Professor Jennifer Weidhaas.

Her group is partnering with the Division of Water Quality and collecting wastewater water samples to look for coronavirus in the sewage.  They believe they can find areas where the virus has been seriously under-reported.

She says, “Some people have the symptoms of coronavirus, or COVID-19, and they’re so sick they have to go to the hospital, get tested and prove that they had it.  There are also people who have coronavirus and don’t have any symptoms, but, in both cases, the coronavirus will show up in urine and feces.”

They’ve been collecting samples for the past several months.  They don’t have the ability to pinpoint any one specific person.  They can’t even pinpoint the exact street where the infected samples are found.  But, Weidhass says they can find general areas where more infected people live, and they can give that data to the Department of Health.

“Are there an increasing number of people who are sick?  Are there a decreasing number of people who are sick?  If we see a resurgence in the fall, can we use sewage monitoring to see that before we have people showing up in the hospital?” she asks.

While some researchers are digging through the sewage to find the virus, others are creating more of them in a lab… just without the dangerous part that lets the virus replicate itself.

University of Utah Assistant Physics Professor Dr. Michael Vershinin says, “We’re making something that does not have the genome, so it’s completely non-infectious.”

There are a few reasons why they’re doing this.  The main one is to find out what happens to the virus when it’s exposed to Utah’s climate.  What does heat do to it?  What about humidity?

He says, “On average, let’s say they do have some response to humidity.  What does it actually do to these particles?  Why do they fall apart?”

Another reason they’re making the virus is so they can find out how to destroy it.  Dr. Vershinin says they can use a method called optical trapping to see what its strengths and weaknesses are.

“This is going to sound a little futuristic, but it’s a technology that has existed for something like 30 years, now.  You’re actually using light to exert force on microscopic objects.  You’re actually grabbing things using light and you’re either pulling or pushing, in this fashion,” he says.

Vershinin says it’s too early to estimate when his findings can be released.

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