How airports can help prevent the spread of COVID-19

Canada’s last remaining COVID-19 travel restrictions were dropped Oct. 1, with much focus on ArriveCAN, which is no longer mandatory for cross-border air travellers.

What’s been lost in the discussion is how much pandemic-fighting technology is getting plugged in at airports in Canada and around the world. While airports are no longer the scene of quarantines and mass testing, they have become unexpected partners with governments and public-health authorities — sentinels, if you will, in the effort to monitor infection and inform public policy.

That has meant investing in smarter, less intrusive technologies — many of them made in Canada — and applying them proactively to keep travel both healthy and safe. This is especially important as cold weather returns and public health officials watch for signs of COVID variants that can evade immunity, as chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam told Parliament recently.

When the pandemic began in early 2020, without the benefit of today’s understanding and vaccines, government quickly moved to turn airports into virus filters. Their intent was to keep us safe, so they took firm action. But it has since become clear that even those measures could not keep Canada virus-free.

“If 99 per cent of all your infections are being generated domestically, the relative utility of traveller screening is marginal,” says Kamran Khan, an infectious-diseases physician and professor at the University of Toronto. “It’s kind of like trying to block embers from landing in a raging fire. Preventing importation altogether is not a realistic goal, especially in a country like Canada, which is so interconnected with the rest of the world.”

Khan is quoted in a new Innovation Economy Council report, “From Gateways to Sentinels: How Airports Can Use Detection to Control Infection,” written by medical science and health reporter Carolyn Abraham. The report concludes that, rather than trying to block pathogens, airports can play an important role in monitoring them. As hubs for the movement of people and goods, they are best suited for testing new technologies, sharing information and informing public-health policy.

Some policymakers may have been slow to see that the initial COVID measures weren’t working, but others, including the Public Health Agency of Canada, have taken up that innovation challenge. They have proven themselves willing to experiment with exciting new tools and methods to help airports meet future threats.

Canadian technology companies have also joined the fight. They increasingly see airports as ideal testing grounds for tech ranging from biosensor devices to air-filtration methods to healthier building designs. And as Canada’s airports return to full capacity, they are generating vast amounts of data. These developments can help public health officials make smarter, more timely decisions.

Think of the new measures as early-warning systems rather than closed gates. For example, Toronto Pearson is now partnering with Khan’s company, BlueDot. The Toronto-based start-up uses artificial intelligence to sift through news reports, animal and plant disease networks, official announcements and airline ticketing data in a wide range of countries and languages to predict the location of the next major outbreaks.

Pearson is also among a group of international airports — including Germany’s Frankfurt Airport and France’s Marseille Provence Airport — that are combining the latest genome-sequencing with sewage sampling to test wastewater for pathogens.

Pearson launched its program in January, aiming to detect new variants of COVID and other pathogens at the border. They also recently kicked off a wastewater innovation study, working with and funded by the National Research Council of Canada, the Industrial Research Assistance Program and three Canadian health technology companies. The goal is to explore various types of sewage surveillance tests for both COVID-19 and monkeypox.

One of the companies is LuminUltra, which was selected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to provide wastewater testing as part of the CDC’s National Wastewater Surveillance System. At Pearson, the New Brunswick-based company is using digital droplet PCR technology, which quantifies and amplifies genetic traces of the microbes that can be found in a drop of wastewater. Another company in the program is Kraken Sense, which develops rapid pathogen-detection technology that uses microfluidics and nanotechnology to reveal bacterial or viral contamination in water sources.

And then there is testing, a choke point for airports. Another promising technology comes from a Toronto-based data analytics company called ISBRG Corp. ISBRG’s device, called Spotlight-19, is designed to detect COVID infection noninvasively, by scanning a traveller’s fingertip. The company’s website says the non-invasive test costs about $1 and takes less than a minute to provide a result, making it well-suited for screening large numbers of people in well-populated venues — especially airports — with few delays or disruptions. It’s currently under review by Health Canada.

The nature of COVID-19 has changed significantly since early 2020, but so has our understanding about how best to contain it and whatever else might come next. Like the coronavirus, the technologies available are evolving. For airports, borders and travel hubs, the job is to make the best possible use of them to keep Canadians safe.

Dwayne Macintosh is director of safety and security, Greater Toronto Airports Authority

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