As COVID surges in China, US begins testing more travelers

Jan 5, 2023, 10:06 AM | Updated: Jan 7, 2023, 7:17 am

Passengers disembarking from international flights take anonymous COVID tests for study purposes at...

Passengers disembarking from international flights take anonymous COVID tests for study purposes at Newark Liberty International Airport in Newark, N.J., Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023. Amid a COVID-19 surge in China, the U.S. is expanding its traveler-based genomic coronavirus surveillance program, an early warning system for detecting new variants. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

(AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — Shubham Chandra knows how dangerous the coronavirus can be: He lost his dad during the pandemic. So when he cleared customs at Newark Liberty International Airport and saw people offering anonymous COVID-19 testing, he was happy to volunteer.

“It’s a minimum amount of effort to help a lot of people,” said the 27-year-old New York City man, who had just stepped off a plane from Cancun, Mexico.

The airport testing is part of the government’s early warning system for detecting new variants, which began expanding recently in the wake of a COVID-19 surge in China.

With the addition of Los Angeles and Seattle, there are now seven airports where arriving passengers can volunteer for COVID-19 tests. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention program now covers about 500 flights from at least 30 countries, including more than half from China and surrounding areas.

As of Thursday, the CDC is also requiring travelers to the U.S. from China, Hong Kong and Macao to take a COVID-19 test no more than two days before travel and provide a negative result before boarding a flight.

And down the road, some scientists are calling for wider use of an additional strategy: screening wastewater from toilet tanks on arriving airplanes.

“Without surveillance, it’s very hard to know what’s going on,” said Dr. Stuart Campbell Ray, an infectious disease expert at Johns Hopkins University. “Hopefully, with more sampling, we will get more information about what’s circulating.”

Some scientists are worried the COVID-19 surge in China could unleash a new coronavirus mutant on the world, since every infection is another chance for the virus to change. There’s no sign of a new variant from China at this point. But one reason for new testing requirements, according to the CDC, is a lack of adequate and transparent information from China on viral strains infecting people there.

“We have very little control over what happens elsewhere,” said epidemiologist Katelyn Jetelina, a consultant to the CDC. “What we can control is what’s happening in the United States.”

The airport program is based on an unfortunate reality: “Travelers … go across the globe quickly and they can get and spread infectious diseases really fast,” said Dr. Cindy Friedman, chief of CDC’s travelers’ health branch.

Friedman said the program is a partnership with two companies that take care of the testing and lab work — XpresCheck and Concentric by Ginkgo. A pilot program was expanded around the time the first omicron variant emerged in the U.S. more than a year ago. Besides Newark, Seattle and Los Angeles, the program includes New York’s Kennedy, Washington’s Dulles and airports in Atlanta and San Francisco.

The latest expansion of the traveler surveillance program aims to capture more flights from China. But on Wednesday in Newark, some of the targeted planes arrived from Mexico, France and Belgium. After clearing customs, travelers could stop at a table, swab their noses and fill out a form. Chandra said it took about a minute.

Like other travelers, he won’t get the results. But he tests for COVID-19 when he flies to Ohio every other month to see his mom, he said, since “the last thing I want to do is bring (the virus) home to her.”

About 10% of people on targeted flights volunteer. Their samples are pooled and PCR tested. Positive ones are genetically sequenced. Volunteers get free home COVID-19 tests.

Over time, Friedman expects the program to grow and potentially go global. It’s already shown it can spot coronavirus variants early — detecting omicron variants BA.2 and BA.3 and reporting them to a global database weeks before others did.

But Jetelina said a surveillance program at seven airports is “just not that big” so trying to spot variants might be like “looking for a needle in the haystack.”

To aid the search, experts suggest taking more samples from airplane bathrooms.

“It’s a little gross when you start thinking about it,” Jetelina said. “But these are really long flights and we would expect the majority of people would go to the bathroom.”

The CDC, which monitors wastewater in municipal systems, ran a pilot program last summer testing airplane wastewater at Kennedy airport. Friedman said the agency is working to expand this type of surveillance.

Such testing has been used elsewhere. A study last year in the journal Environment International looked at wastewater testing from 37 flights chartered to bring Australians home earlier in the pandemic, concluding that the practice “can provide an additional and effective tool” for monitoring the virus coming into a country. Recently, Canada announced an expanded wastewater pilot program and Belgium said it would test wastewater from airplanes coming from China.

As surveillance continues, scientists believe that the omicron variant BF.7, which is extremely adept at evading immunity, is driving China’s current surge. CDC data shows BF.7 is already in the U.S., and currently accounts for about 2% of COVID-19 cases. The most prevalent mutant in the U.S. is XBB.1.5, another variant responsible for 41% of U.S. cases. Ray said this one attaches more tightly than its competitors to a receptor that allows viruses to enter a cell.

Scientists said the virus will surely keep evolving — which is why they need to keep searching for new variants. The coronavirus is like a predator stalking humanity, Ray said, and “the predator adapts to the prey.”


Ungar reported from Louisville, Kentucky.


The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Police clear the area following a shooting at the Kansas City Chiefs NFL football Super Bowl celebr...

Associated Press

1 dead, many wounded after shooting at Kansas City Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory parade

One person died after 22 people were hit by gunfire in a shooting at the end of the Kansas Chiefs' Super Bowl victory celebration Wednesday.

7 days ago

This image from House Television shows House Speaker Mike Johnson of La., banging the gavel after h...

Associated Press

GOP-led House impeaches Homeland Security Secretary Mayorkas — by one vote — over border management

Having failed to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas the first time, House Republicans are determined to try again Tuesday.

8 days ago

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, right, and Kenya's Defense Minister Aden Duale, left, listen during...

Associated Press

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin hospitalized with bladder issue

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been hospitalized following symptoms pointing to an “emergent bladder issue."

10 days ago

Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church, stands with his wife, Victoria Osteen, as he conducts a...

Associated Press

Woman firing rifle killed by 2 off-duty officers at Houston’s Lakewood Church run by Joel Osteen

A woman entered the Texas megachurch of Joel Osteen and started shooting with a rifle Sunday and was killed by two off-duty officers.

10 days ago

(Pexels photo)...

Associated Press

Baby in Kansas City, Missouri, dies after her mother mistakenly put her in an oven

An infant in Missouri died when her mother mistakenly put her down for a nap in an oven, a prosecutor said Saturday.

11 days ago

Former Arizona Department of Corrections boss Charles Ryan received probation on Feb. 9, 2024. (AP ...

Associated Press

Former Arizona corrections boss sentenced to probation over armed 2022 standoff with police

Former Arizona Corrections Director Charles Ryan was sentenced Friday to probation for his no-contest plea to a disorderly conduct charge stemming from a 2022 armed standoff at his Tempe home.

12 days ago

Sponsored Articles


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 

(KTAR News Graphic)...

Boys & Girls Clubs

KTAR launches online holiday auction benefitting Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley

KTAR is teaming up with The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley for a holiday auction benefitting thousands of Valley kids.

As COVID surges in China, US begins testing more travelers