The CDC is talking to airlines about testing sewage in planes

The federal agency told NBC News that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is talking to airlines about the possibility of testing for the coronavirus in sewage from airplanes.

Since September 2021, the CDC has been testing international travelers for Covid on a voluntary basis via nasal swabs. The program now includes seven major airports. Extending surveillance to wastewater could allow the CDC to collect more data on emerging variants.

The United States has been monitoring the coronavirus in wastewater since the CDC launched its National Wastewater Monitoring System in September 2020. But that testing mainly involves wastewater from homes or buildings, not samples from airports or planes.

“The CDC is exploring all options to help slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries. Ex Covid-19 wastewater monitoring It’s shown to be a valuable tool, and monitoring aircraft sewage could be an option,” CDC press officer Scott Polley told NBC News.

Politico first reported that the agency was considering testing aircraft sewage.

a study Published Thursday in the journal PLOS Global Public Health, it shows how this approach could be useful: A team of researchers from Bangor University in Wales found that coronavirus was widely circulated in wastewater from airports and planes in the UK, even while testing for Covid was required. for not vaccinating passengers.

These findings suggest that aircraft wastewater sampling can pick up asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections that Covid tests might miss, in addition to detecting other viruses or bacteria.

“The more information you have, the more accurate decisions you can make,” said Kata Farkas, one of the study’s authors and a postdoctoral research officer at Bangor University. “I think wastewater-based surveillance is a really good tool to support any public health decision that is being made.”

new Report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, also published Thursday, came to a similar conclusion. She suggested that wastewater monitoring could provide important data about existing or emerging pathogens, and also outlined a vision for how the existing system can be expanded and functioning moving forward.

As of October, More than 1250 locations They’ve been doing wastewater testing all over the United States, but most counties don’t have the funding, the ability, or the will to take sewage samples yet. So according to the report, a more robust system should screen for many pathogens simultaneously, adding sampling sites in underprivileged areas and at specific endemic sites such as sports stadiums, zoos or major airports.

Make the most of wastewater control

Wastewater testing can provide different information depending on where the samples were collected. Those from an airport, dormitory, or long-term care facility, for example, may offer a more accurate view than mass testing at the community level.

“If you have a new species coming in and you have a wastewater sample, it’s more concentrated than a smaller sewer shed or an airport,” said Sandra McClellan, a professor of freshwater sciences at the University of Wisconsin. Milwaukee, which was not involved in either report. “If you look at municipal wastewater, you might miss it.”

While samples from individual planes are unlikely to represent population-wide trends, they do present a different advantage, according to Heather Bishell, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of California, Davis: Scientists can trace pathogens to a specific geographic area. the origin.

“Having this kind of information about our ports of entry will give advance warning to where a new outbreak could occur,” said Bishil, who was not involved in the reports.

Farkas said she believes it would be most beneficial to test sewage from long-haul international flights, as more passengers are likely to use the plane’s toilets. But she also said there could be legal and political barriers to sampling directly from aircraft.

“Some countries may consider the plane their own territory, and if you want to get anything out of it, you’re basically stealing from another country, frankly,” Farkas said.

For their new study, Farkas and her team analyzed wastewater samples from three airports in the UK — Heathrow, Edinburgh and Bristol — over a three-week period in March 2022. 32 of the samples came from aircraft sewage, while another 150 came from sewage near sewage stations. Airport or sewage treatment plants associated with Edinburgh Airport.

All samples collected from Heathrow and Bristol airports have tested positive for coronavirus, and 85% of samples from Edinburgh Airport have tested positive.

Discover the next pandemic threat

In addition to the coronavirus, the CDC has used wastewater data to detect smallpox (previously known as monkeypox), and polio viruses.

The National Academies report suggested that a larger nationwide system could also screen for influenza, antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and Enterovirus D68It is a common childhood virus that can cause muscle weakness or paralysis in rare cases.

“Basically, anything that’s found in feces or urine is going to end up in wastewater,” Farkas said.

But identifying new viruses or bacteria from wastewater can be difficult if scientists don’t know what signatures to look for.

“If we’re going to sequence everything in wastewater, there’s a lot out there, and so our ability to resolve unique and new pathogens is somewhat limited,” John Scott Mishke, a University of Washington microbiologist and panellist who wrote the National Academies report, said. in a webinar on Thursday.

“Novel pathogens continue to be one of our blind spots,” he added.

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