The University of New Hampshire is going to new depths in an effort to test for early warning signs of COVID-19 on campus, according to a news release by the institution.

An on-site team of environmental engineers has gone underground to identify traces of the virus by testing wastewater throughout the Durham campus.

Paula Mouser, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at UNH, is leading the team tasked with identifying traces of the virus’s genetic material in human sewage.

“Sewage sampling can be a valuable surveillance tool because it can provide an early warning to possible infection hot spots on campus and help identify areas where the virus may be present but not detected in individuals because they aren’t showing symptoms,” Mouser said in the report.

According to UNH, the testing began at the start of the fall semester and is taking place three times per week. The University estimates the on-campus testing accounts for close to 4,400 students, which makes up approximately 80% of those living on campus.

The report states that a human can show signs of the virus in their waste for several weeks after a negative test. Initially, Mouser and her team was able to detect some signs of the virus in campus wastewater, a marker the team believes indicates infections prior to the beginning of the semester.

Theoretically, a spike in viral biomarkers in the would be compared with the robust testing already being done on campus in the form of primary nasal swabs. The report says students living on campus are self-screening every four days.

Citing the World Health Organization, the report states that wastewater testing has historical significance and was even used during the polio outbreak.

Mouser and her team are also reportedly developing a pilot program to help other organizations apply wastewater surveillance to their respective environments, a response to multiple outside requests looking to replicate her initiative.

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