UNC Charlotte’s campus-based early detection research system aims to prevent COVID-19 spread

The global pandemic caused by coronavirus, which is affecting humanity on a scale not seen in more than 100 years, is disrupting the traditional start of the academic year at colleges and universities worldwide. While the situation challenges higher education administrators on a number of fronts, researchers are able to view the crisis through a scientific lens.

“This terrible situation offers one of the most exciting opportunities for research since I’ve been a scientist,” said UNC Charlotte bioinformatics researcher Cynthia Gibas. She and a team of University researchers representing several academic disciplines, whose work was featured in the New York Times on Aug. 30, are preparing to sample and test wastewater from various campus locations as an early-warning system to locate the presence of COVID-19. Researchers in the United States and Europe have demonstrated that this type of testing can signal the emergence of potential clusters of positive coronavirus individuals several days in advance of the results of the first clinical diagnosis.

UNC Charlotte is one of several institutions nationwide to invest in campus-based wastewater testing. However, as North Carolina’s urban research university, situated in the state’s largest city, the University is uniquely positioned to draw on interdisciplinary scientific expertise to address this worldwide health crisis on campus and community levels. With plans for students to return for face-to-face instruction starting Oct. 1, UNC Charlotte leaders are focused on prevention strategies aimed at maintaining the health and safety of the University population.

Gibas and Mariya Munir, assistant professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with support from a number of faculty, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers are leading the wastewater sampling and testing efforts.

(L to R: Lab manager Neha Mittel, Cynthia Gibas, Jessica Schlueter, Mariya Munir and Kevin Lambirth)
(Lab manager Neha Mittel, Cynthia Gibas, Jessica Schlueter, Mariya Munir and Kevin Lambirth)

“Surveillance of wastewater works as an indicator because people begin shedding the virus before they are aware that they are sick,” stated Gibas. “We are planning to focus on 20 on-campus sites this semester, mostly residence halls, and then scale up to include other campus locations.”

Wastewater samples collected will be tested in specific labs within the Bioinformatics Building and EPIC (Energy Production and Infrastructure Center) that have been furnished with the equipment and technology necessary for this type of COVID-19 testing. University researchers’ efforts — from protocols to facilities — meet guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Wastewater Surveillance System.

Bioinformaticians from the College of Computing and InformaticsDepartment of Bioinformatics and Genomics (Gibas and Kevin Lambirth ’15 Ph.D.), have experience with the metagenomics of environmental samples, and a genomic biologist (Jessica Schlueter) will analyze variations in DNA. The Lee College of Engineering’s Munir is an environmental engineer with expertise in the quantitative detection of DNA/RNA. Wenwu Tang and Eric Delmelle from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences are experts in geospatial data analysis. Computer scientist Srinivas Akella has expertise in optimization and robotics, and the College of Health and Human Services‘ public health scientists Shi Chen and Rajib Paul bring experience in modeling epidemics.

While wastewater-based epidemiology is not necessarily new, it is novel for the early detection of COVID-19. Its application within a college campus environment allows the University to analyze the effectiveness of this approach in a congregate living setting. Furthermore, data science applications could make possible the correlation of wastewater data with University demographics and information available from other campus-based COVID-19 mitigation efforts to produce additional and highly informative epidemic models. Findings also may be applicable to towns, cities and counties for similar investigations at neighborhood levels to foresee and abate outbreaks as well as to K-12 or similar settings.

Schlueter, an associate professor of Bioinformatics, with research expertise in molecular biology, will train students to assist with the project. She noted that the team’s COVID-19 testing may identify different viral strains on campus and link them back to the larger pandemic due to scientific advancements in DNA/RNA sequencing.

“This pandemic is a true crisis, but it is one for which we can, through our research, help our academic home, and the city and state,” said Gibas. “What we learn now will benefit us in many ways, as many predictions have us not returning to normal until 2022, and this probably will not be the last disease humanity will have to manage globally.”

Following the trail of COVID-19

Another tool UNC Charlotte will implement to track positive COVID-19 cases is contact tracing. Keith Carnes ’07 MHA, ’16 Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Public Health Sciences, is heading this campus initiative. Efforts are underway to hire a campus-based team of full-time investigators and contact tracers.

Should the University be notified of a positive coronavirus case among the campus community (employees and students), a case investigator will be assigned to prepare health reports, which includes determining the status of the individual and inquiring about any special needs they have and who they have been in contact with 48 hours prior to testing and/or the onset of symptoms.

Contact tracers will handle communicating with individuals on campus identified as having close contact with positive COVID diagnoses. Information they obtain will be included in state health department databases. The Mecklenburg County Health Department is responsible for conducting contact tracing for the county, so having the University partner in this effort to manage the campus community’s contact tracing offers a win-win situation.

UNC Charlotte students will assist with this wasterwater testing project.“Master’s and doctoral level students from our public health sciences program are skilled to assist in this effort,” said Carnes. “Our tracing efforts will greatly reduce the amount of time needed for training to conduct investigations and trace contacting.”

The UNC Charlotte Student Health Center will establish a testing clinic adjacent to its primary location for students and employees who present with COVID-19 symptoms or have been identified as close-contacts. University personnel, in a certified diagnostic lab within Cameron Hall, will analyze tests and report outcomes. Carnes noted this should enable quicker results and alleviate delays associated with other testing procedures.

Prior to coming to campus each day, students and employees will receive a Niner Health Check survey developed by the Office of OneIT, the University’s information technology services department. The questions asked through this digital tool will enable individuals to determine whether they are exhibiting COVD-19 symptoms, and if so, to seek testing or self-quarantine.

“Data from wastewater sampling, test results from UNC Charlotte’s Student Health Center and testing lab, and responses from Niner Health Check will inform our efforts to locate clusters of possible infection,” said Gibas. “Our goal is to keep our campus community as safe as possible.”

For more information about UNC Charlotte’s fall 2020 campus health and safety efforts, visit NinerNationCares.