Poop on planes may help CDC probe international pathways of pathogens

Enlarge / A bathroom on an Airbus A321neo. (credit: Getty | Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto)

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering blending sewage sampling from airplanes into the mix of its wastewater surveillance system, which has proven useful for monitoring the spread and prevalence of a variety of pathogens, particularly SARS-CoV-2.

Amid the pandemic, the CDC launched wastewater testing programs across the nation, trying to get ahead of SARS-CoV-2 surges. Viral particles are often shed in fecal matter and can be an early indication of an infection. The fecal focus has proven useful for sniffing out community-wide transmission trends and disease spread for not only COVID-19 but also other recent outbreaks as well, namely polio and mpox (formerly monkeypox). Adding surveillance from airplanes and airports could flush out yet more information about infectious disease spread, such as global travel patterns and the debut of novel viral variants.

A study published last week in PLOS Global Public Health found such sewage surveillance in UK airport terminals and airplanes was effective at tracking SARS-CoV-2 among international travelers. Overall, the surveillance data suggested that it is a “useful tool for monitoring the global transfer rate of human pathogens and other disease-causing agents across international borders and should form part of wider international efforts to monitor and contain the spread of future disease outbreaks,” the authors, led by Kata Farkas of Bangor University, concluded.

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