Coronavirus

Corona infection risk on the plane: high despite mask and PCR test

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The recently decided restriction of the range of motion to 15 kilometers around the place of residence with the extended lockdown was aimed primarily at inland day trips, for example to nearby ski areas. But international travel is also still restricted.

A case study from New Zealand now also questions the often-invoked safety of long-haul flights. Despite hygiene and distance rules, despite corona tests before departure and air conditioning in the aircraft, there still seems to be a risk of infection, as the study based on the Emirates flight EK488 on September 29, 2020 shows.

According to the investigation, seven of the 86 passengers tested positive for Covid-19 after the 18-hour long-haul flight from Dubai to New Zealand with a tank stopover in Malaysia. The passengers sat in five rows in the aircraft – with space and sometimes a row in between. Five of those infected said they wore masks and gloves during the flight, two others did not. Masks and gloves were not mandatory on the flight.

Four passengers became infected despite their distance and protective measures during the flight

The evaluation of the data suggests that a passenger from Switzerland was already carrying the virus when he got on board. His travel companion was probably infected with him before the flight. However, both had a negative result after a PCR test less than 72 hours before departure and were among those who wore masks during the flight.

Nevertheless, they apparently infected four other passengers during the flight. Another infection probably occurred in the New Zealand quarantine facility, where one of those infected during the flight subsequently infected a family member.

New Zealand’s strict entry regulations have prescribed since the first Corona wave in March that only New Zealand nationals and holders of a permanent residence permit can enter at all. In addition, all those entering the country must then go into a 14-day quarantine, which must be completed in a special facility near the airport. A PCR test is carried out there on the third and twelfth day, which is why the study can fall back on good data.

Air conditioning was switched off at the stopover

Nevertheless, it is pointed out that during the two-hour refueling stop in Malaysia, the auxiliary turbine of the Boeing 777-300ER was switched off for 30 minutes. During this time, during which all passengers remained in the plane, the air conditioning was also switched off. According to the airline umbrella organization Iata, the air conditioning is an integral part of the safety precautions on board, as it filters out 99.9 percent of the viruses, bacteria and fungi in the cabin air.

The study’s authors conclude, however, that the “epidemiological data, the distribution of seats on the plane, the onset of symptoms and the genomic data of these travelers” are strong indicators of in-flight transmission. Long-haul flights would – despite the residual uncertainty of the results – carry a risk of infection.

They would also question the reliability of pre-departure PCR tests. Therefore, the authors consider it right to treat all international passengers arriving in New Zealand as potentially infected with SARS-CoV-2, “even if a test was carried out before departure” and the hygiene rules were observed before and during the flight.

As “Die Welt” reports, however, Iata warns against further restricting the aviation industry. A survey in Germany showed that 82 percent of Germans would not fly if they then had to go into quarantine. The industry would then not be able to recover, which would endanger the more than 600,000 jobs in the aviation and travel industry in Germany.

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Countries of origin of the 7 passengers who tested positive after traveling on the same flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Auckland, New Zealand, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on September 29, 2020. Asterisks indicate where 6 other genetically identical genomes have been reported.

Countries of origin of the 7 passengers who tested positive after traveling on the same flight from Dubai, United Arab Emirates to Auckland, New Zealand, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on September 29, 2020. Asterisks indicate where 6 other genetically identical genomes have been reported.

EID Journal / CDC USA

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