International arriving flights at SFO will have their wastewater tested for the emergence of new COVID-19 variants, the airport announced Tuesday, making it the first U.S. airport that's doing so.
There is yet another new COVID-19 variant called Arcturus (scientific name XBB.1.16), which has now been detected in 31 countries, leading to fears there could be an unusual “summer surge” of the virus. And with so much home testing available these days, the only credible way to track case counts is through wastewater samples. So it may provide some local reassurance that, as CNN reports, San Francisco International Airport announced Tuesday it would become the first U.S. airport to test wastewater samples for new variants.
Long, international flights are the best for tracking a virus through aircraft sewage, because passengers are more likely to use the restroom — and deliver solid samples — when they spend many hours on the plane.https://t.co/dEbY4o03zy— Science News (@ScienceNews) May 9, 2023
They’ll only be testing samples from incoming international flights. Though as Science News points out, “Long, international flights are the best for tracking a virus through aircraft sewage, because passengers are more likely to use the restroom — and deliver solid samples — when they spend many hours on the plane.”
“As we know from the COVID-19 pandemic, pathogens can spread quickly across the globe, impacting travel and trade,” the CDC’s Travelers’ Health Branch chief Dr. Cindy Friedman, said in a press release. “Testing of airplane wastewater can provide early detection of new COVID-19 variants and other pathogens that can cause outbreaks and pandemics. CDC appreciates the collaboration with SFO to further enhance these efforts.”
The initial process is quite simple. The planes’ wastewater will immediately go into SFO’s on-site airliner waste triturator. “You can pull it off the airplane in under two minutes, quickly put it into a lab network, which we manage all of that,” general manager Matt McKnight of Ginkgo Bioworks, the synthetic biology company handling the sampling, told CNN.
That’s not the end of the process, though. Once the samples go into the lab network, any COVID-positive samples will go through genome testing, which takes five to seven days, to determine which variant it contains. That data is then sent to the CDC.
This seems like something we ought to have been doing months or years ago, and certainly at more airports than just SFO. But it hopefully may prove a model that others will duplicate. Because the U.S. government’s COVID-19 public health emergency ends tomorrow, May 11 (yikes!). And you’ve got to figure society at large will let their guard down even more unless prompted to resume precautions for a good reason.
Image: Aric Cheng via Unsplash