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A biosafety cabinet allows research associate Tingting Xu with the Center for Environmental Biotechnology to work with RNA extracted from collected saliva samples.

Two teams of researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, are helping find solutions to improve campus safety as students return during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen and Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering Frank Loeffler have expertise in microbiology that could help UT and other institutions return to a semblance of normal in the wake of the novel virus. As Governor’s Chairs, both hold joint appointments with UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Research associate Cynthia Swift with the Center for Environmental Biotechnology analyzes real-time data.
Research associate Cynthia Swift with the Center for Environmental Biotechnology analyzes real-time data.

This fall, Hazen’s research team will help UT monitor the wastewater of most campus buildings, including all residence halls. The team has the potential to monitor up to 30 buildings each week. Wastewater analysis can detect the presence of the SARS CoV-2 virus, the organism that causes COVID-19.

“We’re just looking for that virus or its remnants in wastewater that is coming from the building,” Hazen said. “This type of monitoring does not have the ability to identify an individual person.”

Governor's Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen looks through a microscope
Governor’s Chair for Environmental Biotechnology Terry Hazen

Hazen, who chaired the committee reporting on testing options for UT, says this wastewater monitoring can be scaled up or down depending on the need.

The wastewater surveillance testing dovetails with pooled sample surveillance teams led by Loeffler and Albrecht von Arnim, director of the UT–ORNL Graduate School of Genome Science and Technology. If the wastewater team finds the virus in samples, it will trigger a response by the surveillance team to take a saliva sample from everyone in the building, floor by floor.

Pooled sampling is ideal for institutions such as college campuses. It combines individual saliva samples—taken from residents of a floor in a residence hall, for example—and allows testing of more people, which saves time and resources.

Pooled sampling also provides a necessary layer of anonymity for the university, allowing UT to legally collect saliva samples from individuals without also collecting identifying information. If sampling identifies a floor of a building with an infected person, a contract tracing team will work in conjunction with the Student Health Center to identify the infected individual by testing everyone on that floor.

Even without a positive hit from the wastewater testing, the pooled sample surveillance team hopes to test 500 people per day, or 2,500 people per week, beginning with the undergraduate student population.

Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering Frank Loeffler looks over a researcher's shoulder in his lab
Governor’s Chair for Microbiology and Civil and Environmental Engineering Frank Loeffler

“Since the early days of the pandemic, many working groups and task forces all over the country have stressed the importance of testing portions of the population on a regular basis,” said von Arnim, who is also associate head of UT’s Department of Biochemistry and Cellular and Molecular Biology.

The technical requirements of testing for the virus are well within the capabilities of UT’s personnel. It was the logistical hurdles that proved to be the biggest challenge.

“This is an attempt to implement a widespread testing capacity with very limited resources,” said von Arnim. “Fortunately, everyone at the university has been pulling together in the same direction.”

The team worked overtime to get the rollout ready before fall classes began.

CONTACT

David Goddard (865-974-0683, david.goddard@utk.edu)