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Exclusive: UPS pilots try rapid COVID test to avoid Hong Kong quarantines

FDA reviewing Covi-Stix from Sorrento Therapeutics for public use

UPS cargo jets at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. (Photo: Jim Allen/FreightWaves)

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.

Text messages between UPS pilots.

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.

Click here for more FreightWaves/American Shipper stories by Eric Kulisch.

Recommended Reading:

Hong Kong quarantine disrupts FedEx, Cathay Pacific crews and cargo

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  1. SRNE Test

    Great article. This sounds like it could really be a game changer once approved. Any intel on how long the testing program lasts? Do you know of any other companies participating in the COVI-STIX test?

  2. Reed Morrison

    The government is not allowing the public to use nor buy rapid covid test, because they want us to live in fear and suffer. The FDA wants us to spread the disease and the FDA wants people to travel to labs. That is spreading the virus and causing mental disruption among the public. It is time and money and privacy issues going to a lab or testing site for the average person.
    This is why they will not allow the public to buy rapid covid test. We need these test so we can know, if we need to get vaccinated. If we had rapid covid test than so many people would go get vaccinated . So many people will not leave there houses nor can afford to get tested at a lab or testing site, nor can afford to travel due to covid economic.
    Also so many people assume they don’t have covid and never will get it. But if they can order a home test kit, it would sub consciously change their thinking. And they would be hurdling a big step by first testing themselves than second step is getting vaccinated. Nobody will get vaccinated that has not been tested, just way humans think. These home test kits are mandatory to safe access and safe consumer use and preventing the spread of covid. So many people would like to get tested first before they get vaccinated. It’s just a mental thing the world is struggling with. A lot of people also want to be as discrete as possible and don’t feel comfortable being in a public testing site. It’s the consumer that the FDA needs to consider not what’s best for the FDA.

  3. Anthony McClain

    I posted about this weeks ago on my website dedicated to Sorrento Therapeutics! If you look you will see where I have the original email sent to the pilots. I’m so very to see it in print, in a publication as respected as yours and written by such a talented writer! Thanks again and if you want screenshots of the original emails visit us at thanks

Comments are closed.

Eric Kulisch

Eric is the Supply Chain and Air Cargo Editor at FreightWaves. An award-winning business journalist with extensive experience covering the logistics sector, Eric spent nearly two years as the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Automotive News, where he focused on regulatory and policy issues surrounding autonomous vehicles, mobility, fuel economy and safety. He has won two regional Gold Medals and a Silver Medal from the American Society of Business Publication Editors for government and trade coverage, and news analysis. He was voted best for feature writing and commentary in the Trade/Newsletter category by the D.C. Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He won Environmental Journalist of the Year from the Seahorse Freight Association in 2014 and was the group's 2013 Supply Chain Journalist of the Year. In December 2022, Eric was voted runner up for Air Cargo Journalist by the Seahorse Freight Association. As associate editor at American Shipper Magazine for more than a decade, he wrote about trade, freight transportation and supply chains. He has appeared on Marketplace, ABC News and National Public Radio to talk about logistics issues in the news. Eric is based in Vancouver, Washington. He can be reached for comments and tips at [email protected]