Dust from OSU student buildings collected and analyzed for COVID-19 variants

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Dust collected by custodians at The Ohio State University analyzed for COVID-19 RNA remnants. Photo: The Ohio State University.

COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — Dust vacuumed up by cleaners at Ohio State University is being analyzed to find out how COVID-19 spreads among campus buildings.

Researchers can analyze the genetic material in the dust to find out where COVID-19, and its variants, are concentrated in the 50 buildings in the study.

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, according to a news release from Ohio State University.

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.

“If you have ever seen a picture of a sneeze, with all the droplets coming out, that is where this begins,” said Karen Dannemiller, senior researcher on this study and associate professor of civil, environmental and geodetic engineering and environmental health sciences at Ohio State.

“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 work 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 (AMSL). The laboratory has been processing on-campus COVID-19 tests since the fall of 2020.

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.

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, the news release concluded.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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