In a small trial, airplane wastewater was easy and effective for tracking SARS-CoV-2 strains that touched down in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Thursday.
The study found that testing can be done cheaply and easily; This added only three extra minutes to flight maintenance times at airports and eliminated the need to disturb passengers with nose swabs or other sampling methods. Also, as the world largely abandons other SARS-CoV-2 testing and surveillance strategies, testing can be easily scaled up as needed, the CDC authors concluded.
“This investigation demonstrated the feasibility of airline sewage surveillance as a low-resource approach compared to personal testing for monitoring SARS-CoV-2 strains without direct passenger involvement or disruption to airport operations,” the authors concluded.
The CDC conducted the study in collaboration with the biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks. John F. of New York City between August 1 and September 9, 2022. They collected and tested wastewater samples from 80 flights to Kennedy International Airport. All flights are international flights from the United Kingdom, Netherlands and France.
Overall, 65 airborne sewage samples (81 percent) from 80 flights were positive for SARS-CoV-2. The proportion of positive samples was similar in the three countries: 81 percent of Netherlands samples were positive, with 22 of 27 samples positive; France with 22 positive out of 27 samples; As in the United Kingdom, 21 out of 26 samples were positive.
The researchers were able to obtain 27 gene sequences from 25 samples. All genes expressed omicron sublines, mostly BA.5 and BA.4.6 and BA.2.75.
The study adds to other evidence that airport and airline wastewater monitoring can play a role in monitoring the spread of pathogens such as SARS-CoV-2. And it’s involved in CDC’s major pandemic-era efforts to incorporate sewage sampling into its pathogen surveillance systems.
It has proven useful in various locations around the country for tracking early outbreaks of COVID-19 and for tracking the spread of polio in New York. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, shedding of virus in feces can begin early in the course of infection, before a person develops symptoms.
Of course, flight tracking has its limits. This is often helpful on long flights where people are more likely to use the toilet. And it is unclear whether all airlines will adopt this model. Finally, because international travelers may have different connecting flights before arriving in the United States, it may not be possible to track the origin of variations arriving in the United States.
Still, the authors say surveillance has its place. “Combined with passenger-based surveillance, airline sewage surveillance can provide a complementary early warning system for detecting SARS-CoV-2 strains and other pathogens of public health concern.”