Researcher to Study Whether Sewage Can Help Track COVID-19

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FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – A civil engineering professor has been awarded federal funding to study whether wastewater can help track COVID-19 as it spreads through communities.

Wen Zhang, associate professor of civil engineering, was awarded $40,000 through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, to study wastewater to help community leaders better understand the prevalence of the disease in their area.

Coronavirus has been detected in patients’ feces throughout the illness and after recovery, so Zhang’s study focuses on collecting wastewater samples to test for evidence of the virus. The study also seeks to develop a method of estimating spread of COVID-19 in communities based on the concentration of the virus found in wastewater.

“Given the shortage of Covid-19 test kits, this can be particularly helpful to estimate the spread of the disease in a community, because asymptomatic individuals who are not tested could also excrete the virus and release them into wastewater,” she said.

Zhang said the research explores virus spread in a non-invasive way, using tools that are relatively inexpensive.

“By detecting the virus in wastewater, we hope to utilize this information to estimate the most affected communities,” she said. “It will provide information about the virus spread without testing every individual person in the community. And hopefully this information can assist the state and public to make future decisions combating the pandemic.”

And, Zhang said, the presence of coronavirus in wastewater could pose its own public healty risk.

“Even though the risk of contracting the disease through feces of an infected person is believed to be low, the release of SARS-CoV-2 into wastewater could still pose a risk to the public health, especially if the virus is only partially removed in wastewater treatment plants,” she said.

Zhang said she’s pleased to be able to leverage her experience as an engineer to fight the spread of coronavirus.

“We have the right equipment and expertise for this project,” she said. “I love that I have the opportunity to play a part in ending this pandemic. It’s really a team effort, and I have already received support from multiple wastewater facilities, the state of Arkansas and the Arkansas Department of Health.”

Zhang said the project scope is one year, and she hopes to have results in the fall of 2020.

About the University of Arkansas: The University of Arkansas provides an internationally competitive education for undergraduate and graduate students in more than 200 academic programs. The university contributes new knowledge, economic development, basic and applied research, and creative activity while also providing service to academic and professional disciplines. The Carnegie Foundation classifies the University of Arkansas among fewer than 3% of colleges and universities in America that have the highest level of research activity. U.S. News & World Report ranks the University of Arkansas among its top American public research universities. Founded in 1871, the University of Arkansas comprises 10 colleges and schools and maintains a low student-to-faculty ratio that promotes personal attention and close mentoring.


Nick DeMoss, director of communications
College of Engineering


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