Pearson Airport hopes its sewage monitoring program will detect new variants of COVID

Toronto Pearson Airport has quietly launched a new partnership with local and federal health agencies to monitor sewage from Canada’s largest air terminal in an effort to detect new, potentially deadly variants as they enter the country. The testing program is a first of its kind for a Canadian airport, a spokesperson for the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) told The Star.

The program, which is still in its pilot stages, was launched in January and is expected to run until March 2023. Using wastewater collected from airplanes and airport toilets, the program aims to detect Worrying and exciting new variants when entering Canada through one of the country’s busiest ports of entry.

The pilot project is a joint initiative of Pearson, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) and three Ontario universities, with PHAC leading the pilot project.

Dwayne MacIntosh, director of corporate safety and security at Pearson, told The Star in a recent interview that testing airport sewage is « a very simple mechanism to test for COVID-19, » with the added benefits of being both affordable and non-invasive to travellers.

The tests allow researchers to compare the virus entering the country to what is reflected in communities surrounding the airport, MacIntosh said. From there, organizations like PHAC can make decisions about how to respond to changing information, he added. While Pearson will be the first airport in Canada to implement this system, wastewater testing has already been used at airports around the world. Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, for example, started testing in February 2020.

GTAA, the nonprofit that operates Pearson, has suggested testing sewage could be an alternative to testing individual passengers for COVID-19 upon arrival to detect new variants.

The airport authority objected to on-site testing of passengers, which it said contributed to wait times on arrival.

The National Airlines Council of Canada (NACC) and the Tourism Industry Association of Ontario (TIAO) also support sewage testing and have both called on the federal government to eliminate individual passenger testing. .

In a statement last month, the NACC said its position was that arrival testing should be scrapped altogether, as has already happened in Canada’s peer countries. Chris Bloore, CEO and President of TIAO, previously said arrival testing was delaying the return to “pre-pandemic economic activity”.

In a statement to The Star this week, Bloore said his organization welcomes the pilot program. “We hope collaborations like this will bring us closer to that and help break down the remaining barriers to travel,” he wrote.

However, sewage testing will not replace inbound testing « at this time, » Pearson’s MacIntosh said, and PHAC spokeswoman Anna Maddison said the monitoring program had no not intend to replace mandatory random testing, as this program seeks to identify individual cases.

Wastewater will have to pass through several stages of analysis in order to inform public health about the development of the virus.

Samples, Maddison said, are being taken from three locations at the airport and 24 other locations in Ontario. “This pilot project will also help assess the potential role of wastewater monitoring in improving preparedness for future pandemics,” Maddison added.

The samples collected are analyzed by researchers at the universities of Guelph, Western and Waterloo. Lawrence Goodridge, director of the Canadian Food Safety Research Institute at the University of Guelph, said sewage is drained from incoming planes as they arrive at the airport, offering insight into the types of COVID- 19 entering the country by air.

« Sometimes we see the presence of different subvariants in these samples that we don’t necessarily see in the larger community, » he explained.

If a variant is identified elsewhere in the world, it is likely to enter Canada via Pearson, which means tested sewage from arriving planes should identify when new, potentially deadly versions of the virus are entering the country, a added Goodridge.

A possible problem arises because the samples do not only include international traffic, but also passengers on domestic flights, he said. « We can’t delineate that, » Goodridge said. “We need to do a little detective work to see what is emerging in the world (and) what is already present in Canada, including in the region.

PHAC’s Maddison said results from samples analyzed have so far aligned with the emergence and spread of variants of concern in Canada.

University of Toronto epidemiologist Colin Furness, who is not involved in Pearson’s program, said global surveillance for COVID-19 has dropped significantly, meaning there is less data. where to turn for information on emerging trends.

If the program could expand to target waste from specific flights, there is potential for “very rich data,” Furness said, which could add useful intelligence about the virus that is changing Canada’s response to the pandemic. .

Public health interventions should be “linked to clear markers,” Furness said. For example, he said, « we could say in advance (that) when the sewage reaches that particular level, we will put on masks. »

If a new variant is detected, public health will work to identify it and take steps to control its spread. That could mean implementing or re-enforcing virus control measures in Canada while minimizing the impact on the economy, Maddison explained.

Goodridge said he hopes the project will expand to other jurisdictions in Canada. And, he added, the benefits don’t stop at alerting Canadians to changes in COVID-19: other virus checks could also be possible, meaning early warnings for diseases like monkey pox or a resurgence of poliomyelitis, which has recently been identified in the US and UK

« It represents a truly wonderful system, » Goodridge said.

Jenna Moon is a Toronto-based business journalist specializing in personal finance and affordability. Follow her on Twitter: @_jennamoon


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