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Countries ponder wider wastewater testing amid hope airports offer China COVID-19 clues


A lab technician tests wastewater samples from around the United States for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at the Biobot Analytics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S., February 22, 2022. REUTERS/Allison Dinner

An international meeting this week will discuss setting up a global system of wastewater monitoring for COVID-19, including at airports, after several countries said they would start tests on flights coming from China.

Countries including the United States and Australia have moved to set up wastewater testing on flights and in airports amid a surge of cases in China. The European Union also recommends a similar measure and has drawn up guidelines for member states.

Numerous studies have shown that such testing has been effective for tracking COVID-19 during the course of the pandemic, particularly when combined with genomic sequencing techniques to identify emerging variants.

One expert said the measure was useful when countries either will not, or lack the capacity to provide information on the circulating variants causing surges in COVID-19 cases in their territories.

“It lights a candle in the darkness,” Bernd Gawlik, who co-authored the EU guidelines as the lead on water quality at the European Commission, told Reuters.

The talks are part of a broader push to keep up momentum on wastewater sampling and bring together national efforts into a more cohesive global picture.

It is also becoming more important as routine testing has waned – the World Health Organization says testing for COVID-19 has declined by 90% in recent months.

There are hopes that establishing a more formal wastewater surveillance network worldwide could provide information not only on COVID-19, but also on other emerging disease threats.

However, there are technical and logistical challenges ahead, Gawlik said, including how to handle samples and how to interpret and use the information gathered.