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How an Airport Nail Salon Became the Frontline of US Covid Surveillance

XpresSpa, Ginkgo Bioworks and the CDC have teamed up to hunt for Covid variants — and prepare for future pandemics

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Illustration: Carolina Moscoso

As the pandemic engulfed the world in March 2020, no one was thinking much about getting a manicure. So XpresSpa Group Inc., an airport chain that offers mani-pedis and massages to travelers, closed all 50 of its locations. To survive the next two years, it would have to pivot. It turned to the most obvious next market: Covid testing.

Through a partnership with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and synthetic biology firm Ginkgo Bioworks Inc., XpresSpa launched a surveillance operation to hunt for new and emerging Covid variants among international travelers. Over the last eight months, the trio has tested tens of thousands of passengers arriving from more than 15 countries around the globe. Despite rules that require travelers to produce a negative Covid result in order to enter the US, the collaboration routinely finds both positive cases and new mutations.