Airplanes Can Detect COVID-19

International Traveler Based Genomic Surveillance Program
Airline virus screening
by Orna Wachman
Worldwide (Coronavirus Today)

As SARS-CoV-2 testing declines, the surveillance of international travelers for the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus enables the detection of virus variants, found a recent analysis.

This analysis indicates that when combined with traveler-based surveillance, aircraft wastewater monitoring can provide a complementary early warning system for detecting SARS-CoV-2 variants and other pathogens, such as poliovirus.

The U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on February 24, 2023, because SARS-CoV-2 can be detected in the feces and urine of some infected persons, the global public health community has proposed wastewater surveillance in airports and on aircraft as a low-cost mechanism to monitor COVID-19 entering the United States.

The primary benefit of this innovative testing program is that it enables the sampling of aircraft wastewater, which can be used to link SARS-CoV-2 lineage data with the flight's origin without the active engagement of travelers.

From August 1–September 9, 2022, the biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks, in collaboration with CDC, evaluated the feasibility of SARS-CoV-2 variant detection in aircraft wastewater from incoming international flights.

Aircraft wastewater samples were collected from selected flights from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and France arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

Wastewater was collected from each plane during regular maintenance using a device attached to the lavatory service panel port and the truck hose.

During this program, sample collection added approximately 3 minutes to regular aircraft maintenance times.

Overall, 65 samples (81%) were positive for the virus.

And the positive percentage was similar among the three flight origin countries sampled (Netherlands: 81% [22 of 27]; France: 81% [22 of 27]; and the United Kingdom: 81% [21 of 26].

This investigation confirmed the feasibility of aircraft wastewater surveillance as a low-resource approach compared with individual testing to monitor SARS-CoV-2 variants without direct traveler involvement or disruption to airport operations. 

In addition to routine monitoring variants entering the United States, this modality can be surged based on global public health needs, such as outbreaks or mass gatherings in settings with limited SARS-CoV-2 variant surveillance.

Previously, travelers were reminded to follow the CDC travel guidance and local and state advisories regarding COVID-19.