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San Francisco Airport to Start Testing Plane Wastewater for COVID-19

SFO is the first airport to join the CDC pilot program to test wastewater from international flights.

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Photo: JasonDoiy (Getty Images)

When the COVID-19 pandemic began three years ago, the simplest method of preventing the virus’s global spread was to limit international travel as much as possible. When restrictions began to ease, passengers had to jam a long swab up their noses to test if they were infected with the coronavirus. Now, public health agencies will be able to tell if someone on a flight is inflected by a trip to the lavatory at 35,000 feet after one beverage too many.

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San Francisco International Airport and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have launched a program to test the wastewater from airliner septic tanks for COVID-19. CNN reported that wastewater samples will be regularly collected from international flights into SFO and sent to laboratories for testing. Scientists can detect traces of emerging COVID variants even if no passengers exhibited symptoms on the flight. SFO is the first airport to partner with the CDC in this pilot program.


Dr. Cindy Friedman, chief of the CDC’s Travelers’ Health Branch, said in a release:

“As we know from the COVID-19 pandemic, pathogens can spread quickly across the globe, impacting travel and trade. Testing of airplane wastewater can provide early detection of new COVID-19 variants and other pathogens that can cause outbreaks and pandemics. CDC appreciates the collaboration with SFO to further enhance these efforts.”


The aim of aircraft wastewater detection is to detect dangerous coronavirus variants before they provoke another national or global crisis. Monitoring sewage is an often-used method of gauging public health under other circumstances. For example, last year, the CDC launched a program to test wastewater for polio to target polio vaccine campaigns in communities with low vaccination rates.