Detection of viruses in used ventilation filters from two large public buildings

Am J Infect Control. 2011 Sep;39(7):e30-8. doi: 10.1016/j.ajic.2010.10.036. Epub 2011 May 6.


Background: Viral and bacterial pathogens may be present in the air after being released from infected individuals and animals. Filters are installed in the heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems of buildings to protect ventilation equipment and maintain healthy indoor air quality. These filters process enormous volumes of air. This study was undertaken to determine the utility of sampling used ventilation filters to assess the types and concentrations of virus aerosols present in buildings.

Methods: The HVAC filters from 2 large public buildings in Minneapolis and Seattle were sampled to determine the presence of human respiratory viruses and viruses with bioterrorism potential. Four air-handling units were selected from each building, and a total of 64 prefilters and final filters were tested for the presence of influenza A, influenza B, respiratory syncytial, corona, parainfluenza 1-3, adeno, orthopox, entero, Ebola, Marburg, Lassa fever, Machupo, eastern equine encephalitis, western equine encephalitis, and Venezuelan equine encephalitis viruses. Representative pieces of each filter were cut and eluted with a buffer solution.

Results: Attempts were made to detect viruses by inoculation of these eluates in cell cultures (Vero, MDCK, and RK-13) and specific pathogen-free embryonated chicken eggs. Two passages of eluates in cell cultures or these eggs did not reveal the presence of any live virus. The eluates were also examined by polymerase chain reaction or reverse-transcription polymerase chain reaction to detect the presence of viral DNA or RNA, respectively. Nine of the 64 filters tested were positive for influenza A virus, 2 filters were positive for influenza B virus, and 1 filter was positive for parainfluenza virus 1.

Conclusion: These findings indicate that existing building HVAC filters may be used as a method of detection for airborne viruses. As integrated long-term bioaerosol sampling devices, they may yield valuable information on the epidemiology and aerobiology of viruses in air that can inform the development of methods to prevent airborne transmission of viruses and possible deterrents against the spread of bioterrorism agents.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Aerosols / analysis
  • Air Conditioning*
  • Air Microbiology*
  • Air Pollutants / analysis
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / analysis
  • Air Pollution, Indoor / prevention & control
  • Animals
  • Bioterrorism
  • Cells, Cultured
  • Chick Embryo
  • DNA, Viral / isolation & purification
  • Environmental Monitoring / methods*
  • Filtration / instrumentation*
  • Flocculation
  • Heating
  • Humans
  • Pilot Projects
  • RNA, Viral / isolation & purification
  • Reverse Transcriptase Polymerase Chain Reaction
  • Sequence Analysis, DNA
  • Ventilation
  • Viruses / isolation & purification*


  • Aerosols
  • Air Pollutants
  • DNA, Viral
  • RNA, Viral