COVID source shout-out: Wastewater testing at the San Francisco airport

A few months ago, I wrote about how testing sewage from airplanes could be a valuable way to keep tabs on the coronavirus variants circulating around the world. International travel is the main way that new variants get from one country to another, so monitoring those travelers’ waste could help health officials quickly spot—and respond to—the virus’ continued mutations.

This spring, San Francisco International Airport became the first in the U.S. to actually start doing this tracking; I covered their new initiative for Science News. The airport is working with the CDC and Concentric, a biosecurity and public health team at the biotech company Ginkgo Bioworks, which already collaborates with the agency on monitoring travelers through PCR tests.

The San Francisco airport started collecting samples on April 20, and scientists at Concentric told me that they’re happy with how it’s going so far. Airport staff are collecting one sample each day, with each one representing a composite of many international flights. Parsing out the resulting data won’t be easy, but the scientists hope to learn lessons from this program that they can take to other surveillance projects.

Both scientists at Concentric and outside experts are also excited about the potential to monitor other novel pathogens through airplane waste (though the San Francisco project is focused on coronavirus variants right now). Read my Science News story for more details!

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