CDC Starts Surveilling Airports

Some U.S. airports will soon see surveillance of infectious diseases ramp up in the near future.

Recently, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that it would be expanding its surveillance program for infectious diseases to include more than 30 different pathogens. This includes many respiratory viruses such as RSV and flu.

All of this will be happening at four major airports in the U.S. – New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, Washington, D.C.’s, Dulles International Airport, San Francisco International Airport and Boston Logan International Airport.

The initiative is called the Traveler-based Genomic Surveillance program, and it’s led by the Travelers’ Health Branch of the CDC. It was initially introduced while the pandemic was going on as a way to detect new variants of COVID-19 as well as some other pathogens.

This was completed by conducting nasal swabs and by collecting wastewater samples from travelers who were arriving to the U.S. from international destinations.

It started in 2021 and was carried out by having international travelers volunteer to provide a nasal swab on an anonymous basis.

As a result of the program, the CDC has tested more than 370,000 people from more than 135 countries, with roughly 6,000 people volunteering to participate each week. All of that has enabled the CDC to sequenced in excess of 14,000 samples that were taken for more analysis.

The wastewater part of the program didn’t start until August of 2022. It involves collecting the wastewater from a plane using a custom device, and then shipping those samples to a lab for testing.

If any sample tests positive for specific pathogens, then they will undergo full genome sequencing so the CDC can determine any variants.

The head of the program, Dr. Cindy Friedman, told CNN recently:

“We have known that travelers are a very important population to consider for tracking new and emerging infections.”

Currently, the program operates surveillance for COVID-19 at seven different international airports throughout the U.S. As part of a new pilot program, it will expand so testing can be conducted on more than 30 different bacteria, antimicrobial resistance targets as well as viruses.

As Friedman explained:

“We started this as a concept. Could we get travelers to volunteer at the airport to give us a sample voluntarily when they came in from countries all over the globe? And could we get enough samples to then test and do genomic sequencing and know very quickly what was coming into our country?

“One sample from an aircraft coming from a geographic destination afar can give us information potentially about 200 to 300 people that were on that plane.”

The CDC has been working with a biotech company called Ginkgo Bioworks since the inception of the program. Its general manager of biosecurity, Matthew McKnight, said he envisions a further expansion of this program to prevent another major crisis such as the pandemic from unfolding.

He said:

The dream is that you’re running similar programs across the world in many, many places, so you get much earlier detection than if somebody shows up at a hospital of something emerging. The idea would be, how do you prevent a pandemic? You catch something really early, which allows you to put it into a vaccine manufacturing process much faster.

“Today, we don’t have as much of that early warning as we want. And these are the first stages of it.”