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Screening at U.S. airports expands to try to detect new COVID variants

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

The massive COVID outbreak in China has prompted the U.S. to expand its efforts to spot dangerous new variants quickly. NPR health correspondent Rob Stein visited one of the sites that's hunting for new strains of the virus coming into the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUGGAGE CONVEYOR BUZZING)

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: It's early morning at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF LUGGAGE LANDING ON CAROUSEL)

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE: Your baggage receipts...

STEIN: Passengers rush to check or retrieve bags, catch flights or taxis.

ANA VALDEZ: Hello, everybody. Welcome. Hello. Welcome.

STEIN: Ana Valdez is already hard at work at one of the international gates, where arriving travelers are flooding through two big, swinging doors.

VALDEZ: Do you like to help the CDC to find new variants for COVID?

STEIN: She works for a year-old program that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just expanded to try to spot new variants because China abruptly abandoned its zero-COVID policy. The surge of the virus there is raising fears that could spawn a new, even more dangerous variant. Valdez and her colleagues are collecting samples from travelers coming in from China, but also other countries where the virus is spreading fast.

VALDEZ: It will take 35 seconds of your time. It's free. It's volunteer. It's anonymous - 35 seconds of your time. Where are you coming from?

UNIDENTIFIED TRAVELER #1: From India.

VALDEZ: Do you like to help the CDC to find new variants of COVID? Do you like to help? It would take 35 seconds of your time, then we will leave you...

UNIDENTIFIED TRAVELER #1: No, it's - I can't...

VALDEZ: Have a good day.

STEIN: Most of the travelers trudge past lugging luggage without even making eye contact.

VALDEZ: Long-time flights, then they had to stop at immigration and customs, and that takes another hour or two. By the time they come here, they are already exhausted, angry. They just want to go home.

STEIN: I get it. I - that's the way I would feel, I think.

VALDEZ: Yes. So it's highly appreciated that some people stop.

STEIN: Over and over again, Valdez promises to make it quick and easy and offers a free rapid COVID test to take home as an incentive. One pandemic-jaded traveler jokes he'd volunteer if they offered him a free Starbucks instead. She tries again.

VALDEZ: Where are you coming from?

PETER YUKA: From Nigeria.

VALDEZ: Nigeria is one of the countries of interest for the CDC, so your help will be very helpful. It's anonymous, and it's volunteer.

YUKA: OK. What do I have to do?

VALDEZ: Just have to make a signature, give us some information about the - how many vaccines did you have, if you were positive in the past, and we just - give us a sample from your nostril.

YUKA: For COVID?

It's quite embarrassing. I've done the test a couple of times. I never liked it.

VALDEZ: You do it yourself. So you can do it as you test.

STEIN: He reluctantly agrees, fills out a form saying he's fully vaccinated and never tested positive for COVID.

VALDEZ: You can sanitize your hands for me?

STEIN: Valdez pulls out a swab.

VALDEZ: You're going to do four circles in each nostril. Take it...

STEIN: He swabs each nostril and drops the swab into a plastic tube. She hands him his free COVID test.

VALDEZ: OK. Thank you, sir. Thank you for helping.

STEIN: I pull him aside. Peter Yuka is 38 and on his way to study in Texas.

So what do you think about this?

YUKA: I think it's cool. I think we should do whatever we can to fight the COVID. And, I mean, I saw the damage it did to the whole world, and countries like mine were really badly affected. So whatever it is I can do to help, I'm willing to do it.

STEIN: The samples go to a private lab for genetic analysis so scientists can spot any new mutations that might make the virus more dangerous.

CINDY FRIEDMAN: Whenever you have viral transmission, these viruses are smart. They can mutate, and we want to be ahead of the game and early in our detection of new variants.

STEIN: Dr. Cindy Friedman runs the program at the CDC.

FRIEDMAN: We have a focus on China right now because there's so much spread and so little data or information. So we want to make sure that we have eyes on what variants are coming out of China, but we're also keeping a watch on all the other regions and the travelers coming back from those areas.

STEIN: The CDC expanded the program from five airports to seven and increased the number of flights being screened from 300 to 500 each week, enabling the program to now collect samples from more than 4,000 passengers each week. But many scientists doubt that China poses a big risk right now. The newest hypertransmissible variant taking over in the U.S. at the moment originated in New York. Michael Osterholm is at the University of Minnesota.

MICHAEL OSTERHOLM: So far, we have no evidence that there are variants of concern that we haven't seen already, and I'm not sure that China poses the great risk for new variants, necessarily. Yes, it's true, 1.4 billion individuals who might be infected - surely as every new genetic roulette table throw - but at the same time, there's not a lot of population-based immunity, which would be what would drive mutations.

STEIN: And some say it would make more sense to sequence virus from wastewater from planes, instead of individual travelers, to get a better picture about everyone aboard. Jennifer Nuzzo heads Brown University's Pandemic Center.

JENNIFER NUZZO: I can imagine, if I were walking through an airport and I wasn't feeling well, and I was asked if I wanted to participate in a COVID surveillance program - even if I were guaranteed that it would be anonymous - I don't think I would be likely to want to participate in that surveillance program. You can imagine other travelers may want to test themselves privately and know those results before the government does.

STEIN: But others wonder if the U.S. is prepared to act aggressively at this point in the pandemic, even if the CDC does spot a worrisome new variant. Sam Scarpino is at Northeastern University.

SAM SCARPINO: We need to be having a conversation about what it is that we do if a novel variant is detected. Right now, there doesn't seem to be much that anyone is prepared to do. We need to have clear guidance around how we will actually go about slowing the spread, how we will protect people who are in high-risk groups, how we will work on getting vaccination numbers up, etc.

STEIN: Friedman, at the CDC, says the agency is taking steps to possibly monitor wastewater from planes. In the meantime, she says, every bit of information is useful to determine how best to respond if a new variant does emerge. The day I visited Dulles, Ana Valdez and her colleagues managed to convince more than 50 passengers to volunteer and are trying to get more every day.

VALDEZ: Welcome. Welcome to America. Do you like to help the CDC to find new COVID variants?

STEIN: Rob Stein, NPR News.

VALDEZ: So where are you coming from?

UNIDENTIFIED TRAVELER #2: Taiwan.

VALDEZ: Do you like to help the CDC?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Stein
Rob Stein is a correspondent and senior editor on NPR's science desk.
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