UPS Airlines pilots are testing themselves for COVID midflight, using a novel rapid antigen device that has yet to be approved by the U.S., and sending the results ahead to Hong Kong in an effort to avoid lengthy government quarantines on arrival, FreightWaves has learned.
The express carrier is participating in a trial of the Covi-Stix detection kit manufactured by Sorrento Therapeutics (NASDAQ: SRNE) to support Food and Drug Administration authorization and prevent pilots flying from the company’s Anchorage hub from being isolated against their will in Hong Kong, according to an internal email shared with FreightWaves.
A second source with knowledge of UPS’ operations confirmed the existence of the voluntary program for crew members on direct flights from Anchorage to Hong Kong.
UPS (NYSE: UPS) spokesman Mike Mangeot said he had no details to provide. Sorrento Therapeutics didn’t respond to a request for information.
Hong Kong recently began requiring airline flight crews to quarantine for 14 days in the latest effort to contain any spread of the coronavirus. FedEx Express, in response, offered to relocate Hong Kong-domiciled pilots and their families to San Francisco and Cathay Pacific said it wouldn’t have enough pilots to maintain its already limited flight schedule.
The Independent Pilots Association, which represents UPS flight officers, has previously asked UPS to provide more testing resources and do more to protect members from contracting the virus. Mangeot reiterated that the airline has “gone to great lengths throughout the pandemic to protect our pilots.”
Steps taken include providing crews with N-95 masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers; enhanced cleaning of aircraft and facilities; education on proper public health practices and how to navigate COVID-19 hot spots; advocacy with government health officials around the world to ensure the safe transit of crew members; and testing for international pilots, although the IPA says testing is limited to certain airports.
“And we continue to examine ways to make our safety program even stronger,” he said in an email.
Sorrento Therapeutics applied Dec. 22 to the FDA to receive emergency use authorization for Covi-Stix. The company said the test uses a shallow nasal swab that can provide results in 15 minutes and that its technology is 100 times more sensitive than conventional rapid antigen tests, which have shown limited reliability.
The Covi-Stix testing program is voluntary for UPS crews and is only available to individuals who have tested negative prior to departure with an Abbott Labs ID Now COVID-19 test, with questions still remaining about its false negativity rate.
“The test should be conducted approximately one hour prior to top of descent,” the internal email said. “A ‘presumptive positive’ test at the top of descent is intended to allow UPS to coordinate turning the affected crew member (and any contact-traced crew member in the aircraft) directly back to ANC (Anchorage) on the next outbound flight without processing through Hong Kong and being subject to quarantine.”
Data from the self-administered test is being collected to help secure FDA certification and prove the viability of the testing methodology.
Prior to the antigen test, the process was for pilots to get a rapid test in Anchorage so they could fly in with a negative test. In Hong Kong, officials would conduct a more aggressive nasal test, which takes several hours to return results. Anyone who tests positive on their tests is taken to quarantine at the convention center until their body starts to produce enough antibodies to be considered no longer susceptible to contracting COVID.