Testing the wastewater from airplanes could provide a valuable tool in tracing the origin of COVID-19 variants and other disease, potentially speeding the public health response and slowing the introduction of illness into the U.S., according to a study released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The CDC said sampling an airplane's sewage can be an inexpensive and fast method — it takes about three minutes — to gain information, without engaging individual passengers or disrupting air travel. The nation's top health agency said such testing could help serve as an "early warning system" to spot disease coming into a region.
"In combination with traveler-based surveillance, aircraft wastewater monitoring can provide a complementary early warning system for the detection of SARS-CoV-2 variants and other pathogens of public health concern," the CDC said in the report.
The agency is already moving forward with such sampling, officials said.
WHAT TO KNOW
- Testing the wastewater from airplanes could provide a valuable tool in tracing the origin of COVID-19 variants and other disease, according to a report released Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- The testing could potentially speed the public health response to emerging diseases and slow the introduction of illness into the U.S., the report said.
- The CDC said sampling an airplane’s sewage can be a fast and inexpensive method of gaining information, without engaging individual passengers or disrupting air travel.
"CDC is currently working with partner airlines and airports to establish agreements for the collection of wastewater samples from long-haul international flights," said spokesman Nick Spinelli.
The CDC report comes as the coronavirus has receded, with less severe illness and fewer hospitalizations. Long Island had a seven-day average infection rate of 4.02% Thursday, with 247 new cases. The figures include only PCR lab tests reported to the department, not self-administered tests, which makes them a potentially significant undercount, experts said. On Jan. 3, the seven-day positivity rate for the Island was about 10%.
At the same time, experts say it's still important to track the disease and watch for any significant new variant that could set back progress.
Possible head-start on protection
Testing aircraft wastewater could quickly pinpoint the type of disease and its origin, said Brian Buckley, executive director of the Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute at Rutgers University. It could provide health officials with a head-start on setting policies and taking protective measures, potentially saving lives, he said.
"You would know what the next variant is, and where it's coming from," Buckley said. "Then you could look at how that place is responding to it, and use that information to judge the impact on the U.S."
For the study, the agency tested wastewater samples from 88 U.S.-bound international flights from Aug. 1 to Sept. 9 last year. The samples were collected from selected flights from the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and France arriving at Kennedy Airport. Less than a gallon was taken from each plane during normal maintenance, using a device that attaches to the lavatory service port and lavatory service truck hose, the agency said.
Arjun Venkatesan, associate director for the Center for Clean Water Technology at Stony Brook University, said wastewater testing could be valuable especially as other COVID-19 testing declines worldwide.
"Many people who are sick are not getting tested," Venkatesan said. "This would be useful in understanding the prevalence of disease."
The CDC is already involved with testing wastewater from communities, having launched the National Wastewater Surveillance System in September 2020. The system helps track the presence of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in wastewater samples collected across the country.
'Good information to have'
New York State health officials announced in January that the state will invest nearly $22 million over the next three years to expand its wastewater surveillance program to combat the spread of infectious diseases such as influenza, hepatitis A and polio. The expansion will enable the program to reach more than 1 million Long Islanders, a 14% increase.
Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, said he sees wastewater testing as a way to obtain a great deal of information on illnesses with minimal cost and effort.
"You can learn what's making people sick around the world," Adalja said. "We going to have an understanding of how variants are spreading and track them around the world. … This is just good information to have when combating infectious disease."
The risk of pandemics is growing along with the world's population and the pervasive use of air travel, said Anna Bershteyn, an assistant professor at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine.
"Many epidemics used to stay local," Bershteyn said, praising the plan to test wastewater. "We can respond much sooner before an outbreak gets spreading."
Airplane wastewater sampling would have been useful in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bershteyn said, helping officials track the disease coming into the country before widespread illness appeared. Early detection also can hasten the development of vaccines, she said.
The CDC released a separate report Friday that looked at the omicron subvariant XBB. 1.5, the current dominant strain of the coronavirus. The report noted that, according to early data by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the variant showed no difference in disease severity when compared with the previously predominant omicron variant BQ.1.