US plans to test airline sewage as COVID surges in China

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CHICAGO/NEW YORK – As COVID-19 infections rise in China, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering sampling sewage collected from international planes to track any new emerging variants, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said. agency to Reuters.

Such a policy would offer a better solution to tracking the virus and slowing its entry into the United States than the new travel restrictions announced this week by the United States and other countries, which require mandatory negative COVID tests for travelers in from China, three infectious disease experts said. Reuters.

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Travel restrictions, such as mandatory testing, have so far failed to significantly curb the spread of COVID and largely function as optics, said infectious disease expert Dr Michael Osterholm at the University of Minnesota.

“They seem essential from a political point of view. I think every government feels they will be accused of not doing enough to protect their citizens if they don’t,” he said.

The United States also expanded its voluntary airport genome sequencing program this week, adding Seattle and Los Angeles to the program. This brings the total number of airports collecting information from positive tests to seven.

But experts said that might not provide a meaningful sample size.

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A better solution would be to test airline sewage, which would offer a clearer picture of how the virus mutates, given the lack of data transparency in China, said genomics expert Dr Eric Topol and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California.

Getting plane sewage out of China « would be a very good tactic, » Topol said, adding that it’s important for the US to improve its surveillance tactics « because China is so unwilling to share its data. genomics ».

China said criticism of its COVID statistics was baseless and downplayed the risk of new variants, saying it expects mutations to be more infectious but less severe. Still, doubts over official Chinese data prompted many places, including the United States, Italy and Japan, to impose new testing rules on Chinese visitors as Beijing lifted travel controls. Analyzing aircraft wastewater is among options the CDC is considering to slow the introduction of new variants into the United States from other countries, CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in an e -mail. The agency is grappling with a lack of transparency on COVID in China after the country of 1.4 billion people abruptly lifted strict COVID lockdown and testing policies, releasing the virus into an underserved population. vaccinated and previously unexposed.

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“Previous COVID-19 sewage monitoring has proven to be a valuable tool and aircraft sewage monitoring could potentially be an option,” she wrote. French researchers reported in July that testing of aircraft sewage showed that requiring negative COVID tests before international flights does not protect countries from the spread of new variants. They found the Omicron variant in the wastewater from two commercial planes that flew from Ethiopia to France in December 2021, even though passengers had to take COVID tests before boarding. California researchers reported in July that community sewage sampling in San Diego detected the presence of the Alpha, Delta, Epsilon and Omicron variants up to 14 days before they began showing up on nasal swabs.

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Osterholm and others said mandatory testing before traveling to the United States is unlikely to prevent new variants from entering the country.

“Border closures or border testing really make very little difference. Maybe it slows it down a few days,” he said, as the virus is likely to spread around the world and could infect people in Europe or elsewhere who could then bring it to the United States. .

David Dowdy, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said increased genomic surveillance is important and sewage sampling could be helpful, but testing takes time.

“I think we have to be careful about the extent to which we expect this data to really inform our ability to respond,” he said. (Reporting by Julie Steenhuysen and Nancy Lapid; Additional reporting by Jeff Mason, Trevor Hunnicutt and Alexandra Alper in Washington. Editing by Gerry Doyle)



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