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San Francisco International Airport (SFO) announced this week that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is launching a pilot program through a collaboration with XpresCheck and Ginkgo Bioworks to enable near-real-time detection of new COVID-19 variants among travelers entering the U.S. at the airport.

The CDC program establishes an enhanced voluntary COVID surveillance among international travelers arriving at SFO. The CDC added it is launching similar programs at John F. Kennedy International (JFK) and Newark Liberty International (EWR) airports.

The pilot program will invite passengers to volunteer for two types of tests. The first is a “pooled” PCR test, meaning several passengers’ samples are combined and tested as a group and sequenced if positive. The second type of test involves providing passengers with an at-home specimen collection kit that passengers submit for an individual PCR test 3-5 days after arrival into the U.S.

Positive results will also be sequenced. CDC will use the results for surveillance purposes. Travelers will be notified of their positive PCR results; those whose specimens were tested as a pool will be notified that someone in the pool tested positive and recommended to retest.

“We are proud to be chosen for this pilot program with the Centers for Disease Control,” said SFO Director Ivar Satero. “Throughout the pandemic, SFO has been a leader in enhanced screening, onsite testing, and vaccination programs. This latest initiative represents another step forward in the effort to identify, track, and ultimately mitigate potential new variants of COVID.”

The XpresSpa Group’s XpresCheck division has the capacity to conduct testing in major airports where international travelers commonly arrive, while Concentric by Gingko has experience in testing and sequencing for COVID-19.

In July 2021, SFO served as the launch site for a pilot program hosted by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to equip travelers with registered self-testing kits allowing the CDPH to monitor for COVID-19 variants in the state and develop mitigation strategies.