Testing for COVID-19 in HVAC could be the future of surveillance testing

Researchers at East Carolina University measured the virus that causes COVID-19 in HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) units of multiple student dorms in the spring of 2021 to see whether it would even be possible to detect the virus from HVAC units.

They found it was, as they published in the American Journal of Infection Control. And not only was it possible, it was highly effective.

When testing for the virus in a dorm where they knew people had COVID-19, they were able to confirm presence of the virus 100% of the time.

Rachel Roper is a professor in the department of Microbiology and Immunology at ECU. Roper said they had to drill holes into vents, but if HVAC systems were to include a port to place measuring devices in the future, you could screen for all kinds of viruses in any building.

“You could surveil for COVID, you could do surveillance for influenza, any respiratory pathogen at all could be done this way,” Roper said.

The idea came after hearing that colleges were monitoring wastewater to determine COVID-19 prevalence in communities. Roper says using air filters is easier, and cleaner.

The study lists the potential for using the method to detect the virus that causes COVID-19 in areas where the pandemic is already under control. Future studies will show whether or not it would be cheaper than other available forms of virus screening, but if so, researchers could find the virus in congregate living settings before it spreads widely.

Roper says it could help in a number of settings, like hotels, barracks, prisons, cruise ships, or anywhere lots of people are living close together.

Sinan Sousan in the School of Public Health, a researcher on the study, said further research could show whether it’s cheaper, too.

Sousan says testing in multiple dorms throughout the spring gave them a better idea of what’s possible with surveillance HVAC testing.

“For the two dorms, our data suggests it’s easier to detect the virus when the person is closer to the detection unit or on the same floor with a 75% detection rate,” Sousan said. “We achieved 100% detection rate inside the isolation dorm.”