Wastewater from some flights arriving at Vancouver airport to be tested for COVID-19

People flying to Canada from China, Hong Kong and Macao will have to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights, the federal government said Saturday.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
People flying to Canada from China, Hong Kong and Macao will have to test negative for COVID-19 before boarding flights, the federal government said Saturday. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

As Canada implements new COVID-19 rules for travellers arriving from the People's Republic of China, Hong Kong and Macao, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) said it will be part of a pilot project to test wastewater from select aircraft.

Starting Thursday, the federal government will require air travellers arriving from China, Hong Kong or Macao to provide evidence of a negative COVID-19 test taken before their departure.

The temporary health measures, in place for 30 days, are a reaction to a surge in the virus in China and the limited epidemiological and other data available, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) announced Saturday.

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix said he supports Ottawa's decision.

Wastewater pilot project

In addition, Vancouver International Airport said it is working with PHAC and the B.C. Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC) on wastewater testing.

Wastewater from YVR is currently monitored through existing community sampling at the Iona Wastewater Treatment Plant, located just north of the airport.

YVR was approached by PHAC and the BCCDC a couple of months ago about sampling waste from the airport terminal building as well as from the depot where plane waste is deposited, said Trevor Boudreau, director of external relations for Vancouver Airport Authority.

Following the latest travel measures, health officials approached YVR once again for a pilot project "to directly sample waste from certain aircraft arriving from specific destinations," Boudreau said.

The government also announced expanded wastewater testing at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

PHAC said the pilot projects, which it hopes will be running within the last two weeks of January, will be short-term and focused on flights from China and Hong Kong. Boudreau noted there are no direct flights to Vancouver from Macao.

Testing can help track COVID-19 mutations

Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist with the University Health Network in Toronto, said wastewater sampling can be useful in tracking emerging mutations in the COVID-19 virus and emerging variants of concern.

"It's really important to have a good understanding of which variants are circulating, which ones are in Canada and that just gives us some very valuable information that is often actionable," he said.

Bogoch noted that data transparency is critical.

"It's extremely important to share this data with the world and when we have open platforms for sharing genomic sequencing, we're in a much better place and we just have a much more well-informed global population," he said, adding such monitoring is a necessary next step as COVID-19 ebbs and flows.

"I don't think there's many silver bullets with COVID-19, and this certainly isn't one of them," he said. "It's just gradually moving forward in a smart direction, getting better data [that] help drive smart policy."