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COVID Variant Medical Detectives Deploying To San Francisco International

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday announced the launch of a pilot testing program to identify new COVID variants at the San Francisco International Airport.

For now, the program is limited to passengers on certain international flights coming into San Francisco, as well as JFK and Newark International. The program is part of an effort to get a head start on any new COVID variant entering the United States

As a mRNA virus, COVID-19 is constantly evolving and changing across the world. A recent example is the Delta variant which is still creating medical havoc in some parts of the country.

Early detection will allow medical researchers to quickly begin testing how the new strains spread and react to the vaccines currently in use.

The CDC will be conducting the SFO monitoring program in collaboration with the XpresCheck COVID-19 testing company and Ginkgo Bioworks.

"We are proud to be chosen for this pilot program with the Centers for Disease Control," said SFO Airport Director Ivar C. Satero in news release. "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."

Dr. Cindy Friedman, Chief of CDC's Travelers' Health Branch, echoed Satero's sentiments.

"The program will enable near-real-time detection of novel COVID-19 variant strains," she said.

As soon as they arrive at SFO, some international travelers will have a new option to get tested right away.

"The purpose of this pilot is to begin sequencing strains of COVID that can come into the country," said XpresSpa Group COO Scott Milford.

The first test is a "pooled" PCR test, where several samples are combined and tested.

The second involves giving passengers tests to administer to themselves 3-to-5 days after arriving at the airport.

"It is the center point of where those passengers are coming in that we can attempt to capture the most volume," explained Milford.

"It gives them access to something they probably wouldn't know how to get it," said tour director and guide Mark Kusulen.

Many of Kusulen's clients participated in a similar program recently launched by state health officials.

"All of my guests ask what it is. And for those who are interested in doing it, they just grab one and take care of it at their hotel or their homes," said Kusulen.

All air passengers coming to the United States, including U.S. citizens and fully vaccinated people, are required to have a negative COVID-19 test result no more than 3 days before travel or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 in the past 3 months before they board a flight.

The time frame is in line with CDC's current recommendation that all travelers get tested 3-5 days after international travel. Positive results will also be sequenced.

The additional testing through the program is voluntary and a way for the CDC to collect as much data as possible for surveillance purposes, ultimately helping to mitigate the spread of new variants.

"If there is a variant strain, then we be able to do some test and trace notifications then the CDC will step in and do more thorough analysis of that variant," said Milford.

Officials were focused on India when initially talking about launching this program.

Milford says there is the possibility of expanding the program and looking at flights from other countries as well.

Kenny Choi contributed to this story.

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