A new study has found that genetic material from COVID-19 can survive in dust for up to a month, providing a possible low-cost way to track outbreaks. The discovery does not mean that the virus can be transmitted through the dust.
A study conducted in a room that isolated COVID-19 patients showed that the virus’s RNA, part of the genetic material in the virus, can persist in dust for up to a month. The study did not assess whether dust could spread the virus to humans. However, it can provide another option for monitoring COVID-19 outbreaks in specific buildings, including nursing homes, offices, or schools.
Karen Dannemiller, the senior author of the study, has experience in studying the relationship between dust and potential hazards such as mold and microorganisms. When the epidemic began, researchers wanted to find a way that might help alleviate the crisis, and they’ve spent so much time studying dust and floors that they know how to test it.
The study, published April 13, 2021, in the journal mSystems, found that some of the genetic material at the heart of the virus persists in dust, although the envelope around the virus may break down over time. Envelopes, coronary spire spheres containing viral material, play an important role in the transmission of the virus to humans.
The study provides another non-invasive way to monitor buildings for COVID-19 outbreaks. Municipalities and other agencies have tested wastewater to assess the prevalence of COVID-19 in specific communities. Because gene copies and fragments of the virus are present in human waste, by testing wastewater, local governments and other agencies can determine how widespread the virus maybe, even if people have no symptoms. Dust monitoring can provide similar insights on a smaller scale. For example, a particular nursing home, hospital, or school.
In the study, the team worked with staff responsible for cleaning rooms in Ohio,where students who tested positive for COVID-19 were quarantined. They also collected samples from two families inhabited by people who tested positive for COVID-19. They collected dust from vacuum bags from the cleaners and homes. The researchers also tested cotton swabs collected from the surface of the room.
They found genetic material from the virus in 97 percent of bulk dust samples and 55 percent of surface swabs, and cleaners sprayed chlorine-based disinfectants in the room before cleaning, which researchers believe destroyed the virus’s envelope and/or shell and may have rendered it incapacitated. The team tested the samples when they arrived at the lab, shortly after the room was cleaned, and then tested the samples again each week. After four weeks, the virus’s RNA did not decay significantly in the vacuum bag.
Testing, dust to monitor outbreaks of COVID-19 may be most useful in small communities with high-risk populations, such as nursing homes, the researchers said. At this scale, dust in the test room may also be less expensive than routine testing of wastewater or all individuals directly.