Dust collected from campus buildings will help track COVID-19
Researchers will track variants, prevalence of virus
Researchers are collecting dust from 50 buildings on The Ohio State University campus this fall to monitor the prevalence of COVID-19 and track the virus’s variants. Their analyses and experiments are designed to help the university understand where COVID-19 pockets might exist as the campus opens to near-pre-pandemic levels this fall.
Their study is built on previous research that showed that RNA — part of the genetic material from inside the COVID-19 virus — can persist up to a month in dust. For that study, researchers collected dust from residence hall rooms on campus that housed students known to be infected with COVID-19.
Additional research showed viruses do not remain infectious in dust, leaving only the genetic material behind. Analyzing that genetic material offers a noninvasive, low-cost way of monitoring for COVID-19.
“The dust will show if you have even a small number of infected individuals in a building,” said Karen Dannemiller, senior researcher on this study and associate professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and environmental health sciences at Ohio State. “And because we can sequence that genetic material from the virus that is in the dust, we can also tell what variants are present, and track that on campus as well.”
Tracking the variants will be an important part of the campus’s reactivation this semester: The Delta variant is more contagious than previous COVID-19 variants, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have identified three additional variants of concern.
The scientific method for collecting and analyzing the dust is based on a previously published study by this research team; research that suggests the dust is not infectious has been posted to a pre-print server online. That portion of the research has not been peer-reviewed.
The science behind it essentially starts with a sneeze, Dannemiller said.
“If you have ever seen a picture of a sneeze, with all the droplets coming out, that is where this begins,” she said. “There are a wide range of droplet sizes in that sneeze, and there are droplets that come out when you talk, or sing, or breathe — just by being in that room, you are expelling these droplets, and a lot end up on the floor.”
Once the droplets hit the floor, they mix with dust. The droplets can contain the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19; the team’s research has shown that, while RNA fragments can persist up to a month, the virus itself does not survive that long.
The researchers are working with Ohio State’s facilities management teams and custodial staffs to collect the dust. Custodians will clean the university’s buildings as they usually do, but instead of emptying vacuum cleaners into the trash, cleaning crews will empty vacuum cleaners into plastic bags to be sent to the Ohio State Infectious Diseases Institute’s Applied Microbiology Services Laboratory . The laboratory has been processing on-campus COVID-19 tests since the fall of 2020.
The system does not allow the researchers to pinpoint a COVID-19 infection — they could not, for example, identify the specific rooms in a building where the virus’s genetic material was shed. The system does, however, allow them to identify individual buildings where the virus’s genetic material appears in higher volumes. That will allow the university to understand how and where the virus might be spreading, and to make choices that help keep students, faculty and staff safe.
The university already is monitoring wastewater on campus for the virus and conducting regular COVID-19 tests; analyzing dust is “another tool in the toolbox,” Dannemiller said.
“Wastewater testing usually provides data at the sewer-shed level and can be difficult to collect at the building level,” she said. “Individual testing is cumbersome and expensive, but you get high-resolution data — you can tell which individual has the virus. Building dust is in the middle, where you get some increased resolution, and the samples are easier to collect and process than wastewater, but it’s still noninvasive.”
Collection efforts began on a limited basis on Aug. 16. The project launched campus-wide on Monday, Aug. 23. Dust will be collected weekly from 50 buildings on the main campus, including residence halls, the Recreation and Physical Activity Center, and Thompson Library.
Then it will be taken to the AMSL, where researchers will extract virus RNA fragments from the dust, analyzing how prevalent the RNA is in the dust to determine how widespread COVID-19 might be in a given building. They will then sequence the virus’s RNA to identify which variant of the virus — if any — is present.
“It doesn’t give us an answer of whether the person infected others, but it does tell us that this footprint or this marker was left behind, and that at one point, SARS-CoV-2 was in that space,” said Nicole Renninger, an engineering PhD student in Dannemiller’s lab and a lead researcher on this project. “Our hope is that this is helpful as we start up classes and have people coming back on campus. We’ll be able to see what is popping up and where it is popping up.”
Other Ohio State researchers from Dannemiller’s lab who are contributing to this project include Jenny Panescu, Nick Nastasi, John Van Dusen and Josh Blankenship. A team of staff at the AMSL are also contributing, and include Seth Faith, Haley LeBlanc, Rick Shaffer, Jeff Jahnes and Jacob Smith. The teams collaborate on this work with assistant Ohio State engineering professor Natalie Hull and her research team, as well as professor Kyle Bibby and his research team at the University of Notre Dame.