UK engineering students develop van to expand COVID-19 wastewater research into Eastern Kentucky

Posted at 5:45 PM, Dec 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-03 18:22:49-05

LEXINGTON, Ky. (LEX 18) — The University of Kentucky was awarded a multimillion-dollar grant by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to test wastewater for COVID-19, and a group of students has found a way to expand the research into rural Kentucky.

UK researchers started collecting wastewater and testing it for traces of COVID-19 RNA in September 2020.

“Instead of doing hundreds of clinical tests in a community, we can get one sample from a wastewater treatment plant and have some sense of how much of the virus is circulating in the community,” explained Dr. James Keck, a principal co-investigator in the research and associate professor of Family and Community Medicine at UK.

Keck said the data collection works well in urban settings where testing laboratories are easily accessible, but rural communities are a challenge. His students’ work aims to address that.

“The quality of those samples goes down over time. Basically, we want to bring the lab to the sampling place,” explained Jarrett Stiles, a member of the student-led team.

Stiles, alongside Sara Ignoffo, Amanda Muzzey, Will Theodore, Riley Lang, and Sean Haley designed the interior of their mobile wastewater analysis van from the ground up to serve this purpose.

The van will be used in eight Eastern Kentucky counties starting in 2022, including Boyd, Rowan, Morgan, Johnson, Perry, Magoffin, Floyd, and Letcher counties.

Muzzey said their prototype is only the beginning of the impact their work will make.

“I think it’ll be used for a long time. There is talk of once the pandemic is over, using it for other kinds of disease testing in Appalachia,” Muzzey said.

It’s a starting step to making technology accessible in areas with limited resources.