The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working out the “logistical and legal” aspects of testing aircraft wastewater for coronavirus variants while continuing to explore a Covid-19 monitoring program. of this type.
The agency is still “figuring out how to make this program operational,” said a person familiar with the CDC discussions, adding that there are “logistical and legal” hurdles that need to be resolved before the program “is operational.”
Some of the agency’s partners told CNN they stand ready to help implement this potential next frontier into the nation’s covid-19 surveillance effort.
Monitoring wastewater for traces of coronavirus variants is a “validated” scientific process, no longer in its pilot phase, and airplanes are the logical next step, said Matt McKnight, general manager of the company. synthetic biology Ginkgo Bioworks, based in Boston. Its biosafety and public health unit Concentric by Ginkgo has been selected to partner in CDC’s traveler-based genomic surveillance program to detect COVID-19 and flu variants among international travelers.
For now, the use of testing services to collect and test aircraft wastewater for variants “is an active conversation between the CDC, the White House and the airlines,” McKnight said.
But the process of testing aircraft wastewater itself is a “validated methodology and is a program that can be actively run,” he added. “The system is ready to go.”
Aircraft wastewater testing involves the collection of wastewater from individual commercial aircraft carrying passengers.
“You can get it off the plane in less than two minutes, quickly get it into a lab network, and we manage all of that,” McKnight said.
Once those wastewater samples arrive at a diagnostic lab for analysis, scientists scan them for traces of known or unknown viruses, such as emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes covid-19. 19. When samples test positive for the virus, scientists perform genome sequencing to identify exactly which variant that virus is.
“Typically, sequencing takes five to seven days,” said Casandra Philipson, a researcher and program leader at Ginkgo Bioworks. The scientists can then analyze their results and submit their findings to the CDC.
“We can do analysis very quickly,” Philipson said, like in a few days. “And then return the results immediately.”
Both McKnight and Philipson said monitoring aircraft wastewater can not only help detect emerging variants of coronavirus and influenza, serving as a “radar system,” but can alert vaccine makers as to which variants might need our Covid-19 vaccines every year.
Advisors to the US Food and Drug Administration are scheduled to meet this week to discuss how the Covid-19 vaccines will become annual immunizations, similar to the seasonal flu shot.
That process could include streamlining vaccine composition, immunization schedules and regular vaccine updates, according to meeting documents released Monday. The FDA has said it expects to test circulating strains of the coronavirus at least once a year and decide in June which strains to select for the fall season, similar to the update process for annual flu vaccines.
“If you provide information to Moderna or Pfizer early enough, they can make a vaccine very quickly, which we were unable to do at the start of the pandemic,” McKnight said. “The big lesson learned is that you can think of all these virus variants going around the world, and it’s like anything else where we would have a radar system, to detect what’s out there so you can get an early warning. . .”
A report released last week by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine describes wastewater surveillance as a “valuable component” of infectious disease management, noting that wastewater surveillance at major airports and ports of entry for The US could help identify initial cases of pathogens from other countries. regions among international travelers. The report was produced at the request of the CDC.
A separate UK study, published last week in the journal Plos Global Health, found that most of the 150 wastewater samples collected from terminals and 32 aircraft at three major international airports in the UK in March 2022 tested positive for SARS-CoV. -2. The data included three terminals in total, one at each airport.
According to the study, all samples taken from sewers at Heathrow and Bristol airport arrival terminals, and 85% of samples taken at Edinburgh airport sites, tested positive for the virus.
“I was not surprised that we found SARS-CoV-2 RNA in those sewage samples. This was a proof-of-concept study – being able to detect viral RNA in the samples showed that our methodology works, which was a positive result,” Kata Farkas, study author and researcher at Bangor University in the UK. she said in an email on Tuesday.
“In our study, we used PCR-based detection, but other studies have used sequencing successfully for these types of samples. Therefore, variants can also be identified in aircraft/airport wastewater, supporting other types of surveillance programs to better understand which variants are circulating globally,” he wrote. “It is worth noting that the methodology we describe can be used for the identification of other viruses that may threaten global public health.”