A group of University of Michigan researchers is currently studying the concentrations of coronavirus in public spaces around the Ann Arbor campus, hoping to link their findings to infection risks. 

Rick Neitzel, associate professor of environmental health sciences in the School of public Health, wrote in an email to The Daily that the project will hopefully provide insight into an aspect of the virus that has not yet been studied. 

“Other universities are currently sampling sewage to look for the virus, but few, if any, other universities are also sampling for the virus in the environment, so we believe our pilot study results will be useful from a scientific as well as a practical perspective,” Neitzel wrote. 

Because the majority of coronavirus studies look at how infection rates can be tracked, these researchers think their results will offer a different perspective on the pandemic. They believe that virus concentrations and infection rates are in some way related and are hoping to find the answer here on campus.

Rather than focusing on individual spaces such as personal vehicles or bathrooms, the team is sampling public spaces. Samples are taken from environments that many individuals on campus are exposed to, such as dining halls, classrooms and even air. The goal is to study common areas that experience high traffic rather than private spaces that see less potential exposure.

Public Health junior Eden Rotonda sees the study as a step in the right direction. 

“It’s a way to know how to handle the disease,” Rotonda said. “It’ll give us a way of how to treat it and know how it’s transmitted. It would show us what to do if this ever happened again.” 

Chuanwu Xi, professor of environmental health sciences in the School of Public Health, conducts research that focuses on microbes in the environment and human health. He said current studies are focused on identifying virus presence in high-risk places such as hospitals and doctors’ offices, but the contamination of common public spaces has not yet been sufficiently researched. 

Xi and his coworkers are also developing an early-warning and early-intervention platform.

“We are working to develop a platform that can be applied to study and monitor other microbial pathogens in the environment during and prior to potential future pandemics,” Xi said.

Along with Neitzel and Xi, Tim Dvonch and Alfred Franzblau of the Public Health School maintain a realistic mindset while conducting this groundbreaking research. This is their first of many attempts to detect a sufficient amount of viral particles from environmental samples, and they know their study cannot answer all questions related to COVID-19. 

Daily Staff Reporter Meghana Lodhavia can be reached at mlod@umich.edu

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