Researchers aim to find out whether COVID-19 can spread through ventilation systems

U of A buildings to serve as “living lab” for study on whether HVAC systems can help viruses spread, and how to improve filtration to prevent it.


The cruise ship Diamond Princess in port at Yokohama, Japan, where it spent nearly two months in quarantine. U of A researchers are studying whether tiny droplets can carry the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 through heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, it was the Diamond Princess cruise ship, not a country, that trailed only China in the number confirmed COVID-19 cases. While the ill-fated trip dragged on in quarantine off the coast of Japan for about a month, 700 passengers became sick and 12 died.

"We can tell that something's up on these cruise ships during the pandemic, and questions are also arising about the safety of airplanes and buildings," said Brian Fleck, a mechanical engineering professor and a co-applicant on a study aimed at determining whether and how viruses use a building's ventilations system to seek out hosts.

"We'd like it to be something other than the HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning), like the kitchen or a doorknob, but that's what the study is for."

The project, led by HVAC systems researcher Lexuan Zhong, was one of seven U of A projects to receive funding through the second round of the federal government's Rapid Research Funding Opportunity created to aid in the battle against COVID-19. Through two rounds of funding, 11 U of A research projects received $5.8 million in grants.

Fleck said this research program brings together experts in engineering and medical sciences and will begin with a systematic review of the literature on rates of virus in HVAC systems, performed by pediatrics professor Lisa Hartling, director of the Alberta Research Centre for Health Evidence and Stollery Science Lab Distinguished Researcher.

Zhong's lab will test the various filtration techniques in a lab setting, while Fleck will head up an inventory of the university's various HVAC systems that feed more than one million square metres of lab, classroom and office space on the U of A's north campus alone.

To make this possible, Fleck said the U of A's Facilities and Operations portfolio encourages the use of university facilities as a "living laboratory."

"We're going to analyze what's there and create a standard risk analysis on how the different HVAC systems might respond to an epidemic like this," he said.

And while the U of A's buildings would all be up to code, Fleck said some systems may be doing a better job of filtering air.

"This isn't something universities usually have time to do," he said. "The first end-user of our recommendations will be the university itself."

As for the testing of the different HVAC filtration techniques, Zhong-an expert in evaluating how HVAC systems recirculate and filter volatile organic compounds such as solvents and glues that could be harmful to people-will use her lab to simulate the flow of viruses.

"We wanted to use her laboratory to find what's the likelihood that human-generated bioaerosols containing viruses float around the building for a while and end up back in somebody else's body in some way," said Fleck.

The end result will include an upgrade of a systematic review that was done in 2007, which gave recommendations on how operators of these large numbers of buildings might want to manage their risk. Then practices for air filtration will be updated using the lab work, and finally the best practices will be put in place to help ensure safety throughout the U of A infrastructure.

In the end, he said current HVAC codes are good, but maybe they can be better.

"Finally, we'd really like to give people other than the U of A who have a lot more old and rickety buildings a sort of user's manual," said Fleck. "Anytime you stop one transmission, you literally save lives."