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Unique study in Nevada helping researchers better understand COVID-19

Published: Nov. 28, 2020 at 8:18 PM PST
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RENO, Nev. (KOLO) - Helping researchers one flush at a time.

Dr. Ed Oh, a professor at UNLV’s school of medicine, is working with researchers from UNR to better understand the impact Coronavirus has on the community, and he is doing so by testing sewage.

“Upon sequencing sewage we can also predict some of the new, emerging strains that were present down here in Clark County and also up in Reno,” Dr. Oh said of his study.

Because COVID-19, or as this particular strain is called in medical terms, SARS CoV-2, is breathed in, after the body processes it, human waste then contains the code which will help researchers better understand the virus.

Dr. Oh and his team are learning which communities have which strain of the virus, and how to attack it moving forward.

“We can also determine how much of that virus is present,” he said. “We can determine the viral load. How much of it is there? How much of it isn’t there, and also what type of strains (exist in each community).”

In a test done with the University of Arizona, a wastewater surveillance program found two positive traces of CoV-2 at a dorm despite students returning to campus with negative test results. That information was then used to inform the students they actually had the virus. The students then quarantined, which quickly put a stop to the spread of the virus on campus.

“We want to put in place a program in which we’ll never be caught off guard again,” Oh said of the research done to better understand CoV-2. “We will have the tools when, not if, when CoV-2 mutates into a newer strain, presumably CoV-3.”

Dr. Oh’s program mainly tests strains in Nevada. The next step of the process is getting the testing in as many communities as possible. By better understanding COVID-19 where people live, doctors will have a better idea of how to treat people when vaccines do become available. The less traces of CoV-2 in Nevada communities, the better.

“(By) having a surveillance program in place, we’re going to be able to ensure that (those traces are) as close to zero as possible.”

Testing wastewater will still have value when a vaccine does become available. Researchers will be able to see if sewage samples still contain the virus, thus proving the vaccine’s effectiveness.

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