Next COVID variant will likely be found in airplane wastewater

Dr. Cindy Friedman, with the CDC Travelers' Health Branch, says airports will likely be the first to know if a new variant comes along.
Posted at 8:01 PM, Jan 21, 2023

As COVID-19 cases surge in China, infectious disease experts say the threat of a new variant is possible. The sooner the CDC knows about new variants, the faster it can respond. 

That is why the Biden Administration is ramping up a CDC Traveler Genomic Surveillance program that asks travelers from international flights to voluntarily do a nasal swab.

Dr. Cindy Friedman, with the CDC Travelers' Health Branch, says the program currently targets approximately 500 flights per week from more than 30 countries.

"The program started back in September of 2021 with three airports at JFK, Newark and San Francisco," Dr. Friedman said. "Then, omicron came in November of 2021 and we added Atlanta. And then, the end of China's"zero-COVID" policy led to the expansion recently to a Seattle and LAX Los Angeles Airport."

Dr. Friedman says there are two parts to the program that are complementary to each other. One is getting nasal swabs from travelers who volunteer. The other is anonymously testing wastewater. When they get a positive result for COVID, the biological sample is sent to a lab to analyze what variant it is.

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We've known for a while that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can be found in wastewater. It serves as an early detection system to know what's circulating in a specific region or in other places across the globe.

Dr. Friedman says it's helpful when a new variant is detected because action can be taken immediately.

"It could be anything from, you know, we recommend wearing a mask because there is a new variant," Dr. Friedman said. "Or our lab will check the efficacy of the vaccine against a new variant, or the treatments, the antiviral drugs. I mean, it's really important to know that the medicines that you're recommending work against the newest version of the virus."

Dr. Friedman says the program successfully discovered the BA.2 and BA.3 subvariants during the early days of omicron. She says airports will likely be the first to know if a new variant comes along.

Ginkgo Bioworks is a partner of the program that does genomic sequencing along with XpresCheck.

"The idea of having airports as places to monitor for dangerous pathogens, this is like the dream of biosecurity infrastructure," Ginkgo Bioworks General Manager Matthew McKnight said. "And I think the realization that a lot of people have come to is that it isn't science fiction, it is entirely doable."

McKnight says he expects this technology to become a permanent part of national security.

"Certainly the vision like radar is that you should be looking for more and more different things, including in the future unexpected pathogens or as we move into a new and scary world, you know, thinking about being able to monitor for genetic engineering or any sort of biothreats that might be emerging in the national security space," McKnight said.

Dr. Friedman would like to thank international travelers who take a few minutes of their time to provide a nasal swab and she wants to reassure everyone the program is anonymous.