To identify and track the next variant of COVID-19, wastewater from arriving aircraft may be tested in the USA. Testing samples of wastewater from certain buildings already occurs in the USA, but not from aircraft. As cases of COVID-19 increase in China and restrictions are being relaxed, that may be about to change.

United Airlines Boeing 777-200 crossing a runway threshold.

Photo: Vincenzo Pace | Simple Flying

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is examing the potential to test the wastewater from aircraft and is actively discussing this with airlines. Voluntary nasal swabs from arriving passengers started to be collected in late 2021 to analyze the strains of the virus coming into the USA. Hundreds of flights are being monitored in this way across seven major airports.

The CDC believes that by expanding this program to include wastewater from aircraft, valuable data about new and emerging variants will be collected. This is not new in the USA, but what is different is including testing from aircraft.

The National Wastewater Surveillance System has been operating since September 2020, testing samples from buildings. CDC press officer, Scott Pauley, explained the benefits of expanding this to aviation, stating,

“CDC is exploring all options to help slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries. Previous Covid-19 wastewater surveillance has shown to be a valuable tool, and airplane wastewater surveillance could potentially be an option.”

The current system is the Traveler Based Genomic Surveillance Program, whereby all tests are sent to a laboratory for a PCR test and then genomic sequencing, if positive. This enables early detection of variants and provides data to analyze trends.

Testing from multiple sources to track and manage variants

United and American aircraft taxiing at a US airport.

Photo: Daniel Martínez Garbuno | Simple Flying

The move to test airplane wastewater comes following the recent publication of studies that indicated the effectiveness of such testing. A study from Bangor University in Wales discovered that COVID-19 was detected in wastewater from airports and aircraft, even when testing for the virus was required for anyone unvaccinated. A different study from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine stated that testing wastewater could provide crucial information for monitoring and tracking purposes.

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One theory behind this is that testing from a specific location can provide a more accurate picture of what is happening than widespread testing. Professor Sandra McLellan, a specialist in freshwater sciences from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said,

“If you do have a new variant that’s coming and you have a wastewater sample, it’s going to be more concentrated coming out of a smaller sewer shed or an airport. If you just look in the municipal wastewater, you could miss it.”

A benefit of wastewater testing is that it is not intrusive to the passenger. However, it relies on passengers using the toilet, so testing from long-haul flights may provide the largest sample sizes.

The USA is already set up and equipped to test wastewater from multiple sources. Expanding this to wastewater from aircraft could be a relatively straightforward expansion. Ginkgo Bioworks is one of the partners in the airport program. Matthew McKnight is General Manager, and he believes that this could become normal in the future, stating,

“The idea of having airports as places to monitor for dangerous pathogens, this is like the dream of biosecurity infrastructure. And I think the realization that a lot of people have come to is that it isn’t science fiction, it is entirely doable.”

The USA has the resources to implement this type of testing. Unfortunately, all countries are unlikely to have the resources, but at least this would be one more tool in the battle against COVID-19.

Sources: CDC, NBC, Politico


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