CHAMPAIGN, Ill., (WCIA) — When you think about monitoring viruses, you probably think about doctors and healthcare first. But, some University of Illinois engineers are changing that. They’re tracking outbreaks with something underground. 

A new $1 million grant from the EPA is helping them expand the research. 

They’re currently testing pathogens in the wastewater to look at viruses such as monkeypox, COVID, or the flu. 

One graduate student in the program said their research can detect outbreaks up to two weeks faster than traditional methods. 

Helen Nguyen, a civil and environmental engineering professor, is one of the lead researchers. She said this testing is important for everyone. 

“We can help the community and also public health to prepare. Usually, we would see that before an uptick in hospitalizations,” Nguyen said. 

She said with the new grant, they’re hoping to build more models and create a communication system like an online dashboard. That way, they can communicate with the community and public health organizations. 

“And, also guide them to what this information means and what they need to do about it,” Nguyen added. 

She added that this summer, she traveled to Vietnam with a group of students to install this technology there for the first time.

Another researcher said this type of testing has been around since polio, but it resurfaced during the pandemic. 

The technology is inside 5-6 manholes across Champaign County, including one near Fifth and Green on the U of I campus