According to The National Human Activity Pattern, people spend nearly 90% of their lives inside buildings. Long before the novel coronavirus reached our shores, scientists have been studying how pathogens behave in the built environment. Places like homes, workplaces and schools. Now 8 months into a global pandemic, much of that research is being put to use- testing for the presence of viruses in occupied spaces-- in the hopes of stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg is a professor at the University of Oregon and director of the Institute for Health and the Built Environment.
"A healthy building is one that ultimately preserves acute and long term health,” he said. “It supports occupancy within the space, comfort, protection from elements, and viral contaminants.”
For over a decade, researchers at the U or O have been collecting samples from buildings to test the indoor microbiome. From the exhaust air that wafts through workplaces to the window frames in hospital rooms, they’ve been able to detect viable pathogens that could cause harm. Van Den Wymelenberg said test sampling buildings is like wearing visibility goggles to find an invisible enemy. Especially with the SARS-COV-2 virus.
“We keep punching at this enemy but we don’t know where it is and we don’t even know if we hit it,” he said.
“We can spray every surface with disinfectant. We can open our outside air dampers in middle of summer when it’s 100 degrees out and drive as much fresh air into our building as we can.”
All without really knowing if it’s helping.
“But we’re all so—I would say-- scared of making a mistake, said Van Der Wymelenberg. “Because if there’s an outbreak in our building we all look foolish. But with sampling your buildings…”
Van Den Wymelenberg sent me to this research park in west Eugene to tour a new COVID-19 surface testing facility.
“My name is Shula Jaron and I’m the CEO of EnviralTech.”
Reporter: ‘How’s that feel talking through a mask, Shula?’
“It’s constricting but it’s ok. I feel like I have to yell.”
Enviral Tech is a sprawling space with ample room for packaging and shipping. In the very back is the laboratory.
“Ok we’re gonna go in this door,” she said. “So the lab space itself, we can’t go into. It’s called a BSL-2 Plus lab. You have to be trained to go in there. We don’t want anyone to go in there and get infected or anything.”
Behind a big glass window--Two technicians in white lab coats, gloves and masks process samples. A centrifuge spins, chemical agents are pipetted into test tubes.
“We’re basically making the invisible visible,” she said. “This lets us all see when a virus is in our space.”
According to Jaron, each week they preform hundreds of surface sample tests for clients who have opted for this surveillance subscription service. Most want their spaces tested twice a week.
Enviral Tech sends clients their test kits which contain 4 to 8 swabs protected in glass cylinders and directions for how to take each sample and label exactly where it came from. Places like doorknobs, nurses’ stations, elevator buttons. The clients then FedEx the samples back.
“We return results within 24 hours. We’re the fastest that we know about in the industry,” said Jaron.
Jaron says a positive surface sample provides a jump start to begin the more expensive and invasive human diagnostics.
“When we first launched, the very first thing we did was a study,” said Jaron. “And we enrolled 52 different senior care and senior living facilities. It was a three week study where we swabbed their surfaces twice per week.”
She says the purpose was to understand if early detection would impact human outcomes.
“And indeed, we actually had four different cases where there was a potential outbreak. We detected the virus up to 7 days before anybody in those facilities became symptomatic,” said Jaron.
It turns out they had detected asymptomatic carriers.
“We’ve been told, in each of these cases, that we actually helped save lives because there was no more spread in those buildings.”
What Jaron’s company is doing today is based on past research. A decade ago, when the H1N1 virus was looking to be a world-wide pandemic, she says one of the company’s co-founders was able to demonstrate that living virus could be detected on surfaces after the fact.
Currently, the majority of testing subscriptions with Enviral Tech are for long-term and senior care facilities. Jaron, a mother a five, sees potential to help limit COVID-19 spread in other congregate settings—like schools.
“You test a classroom, you get a positive—you know there’s somebody in that class who’s shedding virus,” she said. “Then you can quarantine the people until they identify exactly who it is. Likely you’re going to quarantine anyway to make sure there’s no spread. But it gives you a visibility.”
Kevin Van Den Wymelenberg, who has joined on with Enviral Tech as a scientific advisor, wishes this testing technology was in place in buildings everywhere back in February.
“I fundamentally believe we could have either completely avoided the shut down or had a much more targeted shut down for a much shorter period of time,” he said. “ And saved both lives and livelihoods.”
Today, Enviral Tech tests surface samples for clients all around the U.S. Looking to the future, both scientists say cost efficiency and broad availability of test kits are priorities for this busy Eugene-based company.