It is early morning at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, DC,
and Ana Valdez is already at work in one of the international gates.
“Hello, everyone. Welcome,” he shouts with a big smile as arriving travelers pour through two large swing doors. “Would you like to help the CDC find new variants for COVID?”
Valdez works for a year-old program that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently expanded to try to detect new variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, arriving in the country.
The most recent expansion was prompted by China’s abrupt decision to abandon its zero-COVID policy. The resulting massive wave of infections there it is raising fears that the move could spawn an even more dangerous new strain.
“It will take 35 seconds of your time. It’s free. It’s voluntary. It’s anonymous,” announces Valdez. “Thirty-five seconds of your time.” Samples are pooled and sent offsite for PCR analysis with no identifying information about the volunteers. The purpose of the research is solely to identify any viral variants in the samples, not to see if a particular passenger has COVID.
Most travelers trudge along, dragging their luggage, without even making eye contact.
“They have to stop at immigration and customs and it takes another hour or two. By the time they get here they’re already exhausted, angry,” says Valdez. “So I really appreciate that some people would stop.”
Over and over, Valdez promises to get the test, which involves the usual nasal swab, quick and easy; also offers to travellers a free rapid COVID test to take home as an incentive. A pandemic-weary traveler jokes that he would have volunteered if they offered him a free Starbucks instead.
Travelers on flights from China aren’t the only ones tested
Valdez keeps trying. Valdez and his colleagues are collecting samples from travelers from China and other countries where the virus is spreading rapidly.
Finally, a man stops to talk to her.
Peter Yuka, 38, is traveling from Nigeria to Texas to study.
“Nigeria is one of the countries of interest for the CDC. So your help will be very helpful,” Valdez tells him.
“What should I do?” asks Yuka.
He should fill out a form detailing whether he has been vaccinated or never tested positive for COVID, and then swab the inside of his nose.
Although she says she finds the swab unpleasant, Yuka accepts the test. After completing the form, she disinfects her hands, collects the sample and hands it to Valdez. She thanks Yuka and hands him a free COVID test to take home.
“I think it’s cool,” Yuka tells NPR in an interview before continuing on her journey. “I think we should do everything we can to fight COVID. I’ve seen the damage it has done to the whole world and countries like mine have been really badly affected. So whatever I can do to help, I’m willing to do it.”
After Valdez and other employees of Xprescheck, the company contracted by the CDC, collect the samples, the swabs are sent to Ginkgo Bioworks, a private laboratory that conducts a genetic analysis of any SARS-CoV-2 strain that appears. This allows scientists to spot any new mutations that could make that strain more dangerous.
Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
“Anytime you have viral transmission, you know, these viruses are smart: They can mutate,” says Dr. Cindy Friedman, who runs the program at the CDC. “And we want to be at the forefront and anticipate the detection of new variants.”
The current focus on China, Friedman says, “is because there’s so much uptake and so little data or information. So we want to make sure we have an eye on what variants are coming out of China. But we’re also keeping an eye on all other regions and on travelers returning from those areas”.
The CDC recently expanded the program from five US airports to seven, adding Seattle and Los Angeles because those West Coast hubs receive large numbers of travelers from Asia. The CDC also increased the number of flights screened at Dulles and the program’s other airports from 300 to 500 each week, allowing the program now to collect samples from more than 4,000 passengers a week, it says.
Native US homicron variants are a more immediate threat, some scientists say
But many scientists doubt that China poses a particular risk right now for the generation of new threatening COVID variants: The newest hypercommunicable variant taking over the US at the moment is an omicron subvariant known as XBB.1.5, which originated in New York.
“So far we have no evidence that there are variants of concern that we haven’t already seen,” says Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “And I’m not sure China is necessarily the big risk for new variants.”
While China’s population of 1.4 billion gives the virus plenty of room to mutate, “there isn’t a lot of population-based immunity, which would be what would lead to new mutations,” says Osterholm.
And some researchers say it would make more sense to sequence the virus from airplane wastewater, to get a better picture of what kind of variants might be on board, rather than relying on a sample of individual travelers who may not be representative of everyone on the planet. airplane.
“I can imagine if I was walking through an airport and feeling unwell and being asked if I wanted to participate in a COVID surveillance program — even if it was guaranteed to be anonymous — I don’t think he would probably want to participate,” says Jennifer Nuzzo, which operates the Brown University Pandemic Center.
“You can imagine other travelers might want to test themselves in private and know the results before the government does,” she says.
Other researchers question whether the US is ready to act aggressively at this point in the pandemic, even if the CDC does identify a new worrying variant.
“We need to have a conversation about what to do if a new variant is detected,” says Sam Scarpino, who has been monitoring the pandemic at Northeastern University.
“Right now there doesn’t seem to be much that anyone is willing to do,” says Scarpino. “We need to have clear guidance on how to actually slow the spread, how we will protect people in high-risk groups, how we will work to increase the number of vaccinations, etc.”
Friedman says the agency is taking steps to possibly monitor wastewater from planes after they conduct a successful pilot project in New York. In the meantime, he says, any little bit of information is helpful in determining the best way to respond should a new variant emerge.
“The first step in any plan is to have good information,” says Friedman.
On the day an NPR reporter visited Dulles, Valdez and his colleagues managed to get more than 50 passengers in those few hours to volunteer for the study.
“Welcome. Welcome to America. Would you like to help the CDC find new variants?” says Valdez, as the next planeload of passengers arrives from South Korea.