Campus Looks for Virus in Sewer System

Quick Summary

  • Facilities Management personnel join researchers as coronavirus detectives
  • Sampling at wastewater treatment plant has returned mostly negative results so far
  • 12 portable samplers are being deployed, to help in pinpointing the source if virus is detected

Facilities Management and researchers are collecting and analyzing samples from the campus sewer system as one more tool to potentially identify and halt an outbreak of COVID-19.

Samples collected so far — all at the wastewater treatment plant — have returned mostly negative results. The team occasionally detected low levels of the coronavirus in samples collected in late August and September, consistent with cases of COVID-19 reported by the campus.

The team has taken delivery on eight other samplers (with four more on the way) for installation at various locations that could help identify buildings where occupants should be tested more carefully, if evidence of the virus is found. Sample collections with these portable devices is expected to begin Oct. 15.

The testing process is being managed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, led by Heather Bischel, assistant professor, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering; and Karen Shapiro, associate professor, School of Veterinary Medicine.

Similar wastewater testing is being done by researchers at 76 other universities around the globe, according to a map from UC Merced. This process made national headlines earlier this year when wastewater testing at the University of Arizona uncovered evidence of the coronavirus in a specific residence hall, prompting additional testing that identified two asymptomatic students — potentially warding off an outbreak.

At UC Davis, the 12 samplers will be moved from place to place, collecting composite samples over 24 hours at up to 22 locations.

Campus personnel expect to assist the city of Davis in implementing a similar program, as the city works toward ordering its own samplers to deploy throughout the city’s sewer system.

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Brenda Dawson, 530-752-7992,

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