Onsite Lab at Toronto Pearson Int’l Tests Early Warning System for Infectious Diseases

Onsite Lab at Toronto Pearson Int’l Tests Early Warning System for Infectious Diseases
Scott Berman
Published in: 

By their very nature, airports are challenging environments to keep clean and hygienic. The high volume of visitors alone makes it tough. Add the fact that new waves of passengers and crews from around the world are constantly converging then dispersing, and they can be ideal places for spreading germs. The COVID pandemic made that painfully clear, and airports responded with electrostatic sprayers, ultraviolet light systems, antimicrobial surfaces and more frequent cleaning/disinfecting by custodial staff.

Toronto Pearson International Airport (YYZ) is taking a new industry-leading step by piloting a new kind of testing strategy—one that doesn’t involve swabbing the noses of passengers or airport workers. A lab established at the airport is testing wastewater samples collected from terminals 1 and 3 and samples from the aircraft waste collection area Triturator for a wide range of viruses such as COVID, influenza and mpox (widely known as monkeypox).

By adding an onsite lab with these capabilities, YYZ is helping safeguard the health of passengers, employees and the general public. It also is demonstrating that airports can be important partners in the public health battle against the spread of COVID and other infectious diseases.


Project: Onsite Wastewater Testing Pilot

Location: Toronto Pearson Int’l Airport

Project Cost: $2.6 million

Funding: Grant from Nat’l Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program

Facilities: 300 sq. ft. lab in Terminal 3, reconfigured from previous COVID-inspired passenger swabbing pilot

Strategy: Test samples of wastewater from terminals & incoming aircraft for SARS-COV-2, its variants & wide spectrum of other viruses

Partner Companies: Fusion Genomics; LuminUltra; Kraken Sense

Duration of Pilot: Nov. 2022-March 2023

Scientific Strategies: Polymerase Chain Reaction; Metagenomic Sequencing

The onsite lab at YYZ became operational in November 2022 with a $2.6 million grant from the National Research Council of Canada Industrial Research Assistance Program. The Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) is supporting the effort by providing its facilities, staff time and project management resources. Three Canadian companies—LuminUltra, Kraken Sense and Fusion Genomics—are providing technologies, processing and analysis. The pilot project is scheduled to end on March 30, 2023, and then the project team will assess its performance.

Dwayne MacIntosh, GTAA director of Safety and Security, is heading up the initiative, with key assistance from colleagues Brittany Maxwell and Jeffrey Barrow for the launch and implementation. “We are very proud of the work we’re doing,” says MacIntosh.

He characterizes the initiative as an effort to leverage technology and innovation “to try to ensure a safe, healthy environment for passengers and staff.” But it also has a broader mission to “look for ways to innovate and to help the aviation industry get back on its feet,” he adds. Like so many airports around the globe, YYZ was hit hard by the COVID pandemic.

Tech Forward

The airport is working closely with the National Research Council and its private partners to set up an innovative, leading-edge surveillance system.

The multifaceted testing process begins with sample collection. Each week, autosamplers in the sewer lines of the airport’s two terminals gather 15 wastewater samples. Specimens are also gathered from a triturator that processes waste from incoming aircraft.

Next, LuminUltra and Kraken Sense prepare the samples for testing. LuminUltra is a biological diagnostic testing company headquartered in New Brunswick; Kraken Sense is a pathogen detection device developer based in Oakville, ON. The two companies use a technology called polymerase chain reaction, commonly known as PCR, to identify SARS-COV-2 and its known variants.

Fusion Genomics, a molecular diagnostics company based in Vancouver, takes a different approach: targeted metagenomic sequencing. President and Chief Scientific Officer Mohammad Qadir explains that using its ONETest product, the company can detect and measure not only known COVID strains, but also novel or unexpected strains and other respiratory viruses.

“As far as we know, this is the only one of its kind in the world at an airport, capable of testing and detecting all known and novel upper respiratory viruses, particularly SARS-COV-2 and its variants,” says Qadir. “This capability is absolutely necessary for the detection, forewarning and prevention of future COVID-19 like pandemics and functions as an early warning system.”

As of early 2023, wastewater samples from YYZ aligned closely with results seen in other municipalities. “That’s what we’ve found so far—nothing shocking,” reports MacIntosh.

Dovetailing Efforts

The airport’s 300-square-foot lab was constructed in 2021 for a previous COVID-related trial and was modified to support the current wastewater testing pilot. The previous project, also conducted with support from the National Research Council, ran from late 2020 to early 2021. It involved swabbing passengers’ nostrils to help determine whether such onsite testing and analysis could work in a high-volume airport setting. YYZ served 12.7 million passengers in 2021, and the 300 to 500 swab tests were performed daily during the trial.

In the end, swabbing strategies testing during the trial were deemed to be too intrusive and time-consuming because they created delays for passengers. “Nothing worked in high-enough volume,” MacIntosh summarizes. Instead, the project identified that testing would not work inside the airport environment, and GTAA officials responded accordingly.

Launching the subsequent wastewater testing project required an unexpected amount of administrative work to organize the process and modify the existing lab for a new purpose and participating companies. “When we started to put all of the moving parts together, we found that it was more complicated than we envisioned,” MacIntosh recalls. “The ideas and concept were relatively simple, but it all took us more time and energy to get to where we wanted to go.”

That said, he reports that stakeholders banded together, and the pilot is running smoothly so far. Most importantly, the new process is speeding up test results, which was a key reason for establishing an onsite lab. “Typically, we’d take this wastewater and send it off to a lab to get the results in 48 to 72 hours or longer,” he explains. “We’re trying to prove that we can test and have the results in a much shorter time on a regular basis,” perhaps 24 hours or less.

MacIntosh and Qadir emphasize that safeguarding public health is the overriding priority, but ancillary benefits are emerging as well. “Utilizing such tests as wastewater, we’re able to monitor for COVID and its variants without having an invasive or intrusive process and with an easy flow for our passengers,” MacIntosh says. “It allows them to have the experience they want while we are able to monitor many health issues that airports, municipalities and countries may face.”

Powerful Tool

Project stakeholders point out the strategic value of securing early data about potentially emerging health threats.

“Public health authorities around the world are currently working to safeguard airports and their travelers by providing detection tools for SARS-COV-2 and its variants,” Qadir says. “(But) most of the time their resources are stretched thin, and their testing methods are not comprehensive enough to establish an ‘early warning system,’ which is key in informing about new threats.”

The extremely promising project at YYZ that leverages targeted metagenomic sequencing shows there is another way, he adds. “When airports such as Toronto Pearson International establish an early warning system, they become active partners [in safeguarding their travelers and their facilities],” Qadir explains. “At the same time, they have the most technologically advanced testing available to make informed decisions on their own.”

Demonstrating the ability to respond nimbly to the ever-changing landscape of public health, GTAA recently expanded its wastewater surveillance pilot to include screening for mpox.

All told, the project at YYZ has been as complex as it is important. For the sake of industry esprit de corps, MacIntosh offers insight that may help other airports considering similar programs: “If you want to take an innovative stance, then look to things such as we’ve done, or other approaches, that can support the continued improvement of the health and well-being of passengers in their travel. We want to be part of the development of the technology to do that.”

Regarding GTAA’s motivating force, MacIntosh says it’s all about keeping passengers safe through the course of normal operations. “But we can’t do that in the way we did it two years ago,” he laments.

Indeed, the pilot project at YYZ may be the shape of things to come at other airports.


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