When flying, the risk of infection with the coronavirus is lower than in the classroom, office or supermarket, according to a current expert opinion in the renowned online journal JAMA Network (Journal of American Medical Association). The so-called HEPA filters, which are also used in the operating theater, ensure good air quality in the aircraft, the authors explain. But the team of authors is not about independent scientists, but about representatives of the aviation industry.
A few days ago, doctors and associations enthusiastically shared the good news on social networks: The probability of being infected with Sars-CoV-2 is lower on the plane than on the train, in the supermarket or in the office. In a graphic, the trio of authors shows how the high-quality HEPA filters clean the air and thereby significantly reduce the spread of viruses in aircraft. In addition, according to the authors’ note, the spread of Covid-19 in flying has so far been low worldwide.
All authors have financial ties to the aviation industry
But only very few have noticed that the three health experts are by no means independent, but all work in the aviation industry. Dr. Rui Pombal is employed by the Portuguese airline TAP and chairman of a commission at the largest global medical association in the aerospace industry, ASMA. His co-author, David Powell, advises the International Air Transport Association IATA. The third expert works for the Australian airline Qantas Airways.
“The authors all have financial ties to the aviation industry, which reduces their trustworthiness,” comments the Science Media Center on the publication. The Science Media Center curates new scientific publications on the subject of Covid-19 that shape public discourse.
Adam Dunn, professor at the Medical Faculty of the University of Sydney, Australia, also noticed the post on social networks. “The article looks more like advertising disguised as patient information,” said Dunn, a leading expert on conflicts of interest in science and medicine. Even if the journal makes the conflict of interest transparent, that does not serve the actual purpose, explains the professor. “Most readers do not know whether they can rely on the expertise of the authors or whether they should rather distrust the article given the conflict of interest.”
Aviation industry suffered great losses from the corona pandemic
It is also unusual that in this case it is not the pharmaceutical industry that issues medical recommendations, but rather airline stakeholders. Dr. Klaus Lieb, Director at the Clinic for Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the Mainz University Medical Center, analyzes conflicts of interest in medicine and research. He says that transparency alone is not enough to manage such conflicts of interest. “I think it’s an interesting development when industries that are coming under pressure from the pandemic try to influence public opinion on medical issues,” he says.
The aviation industry suffered enormous losses from the corona pandemic. The international aviation association IATA estimates the loss in sales in 2020 at 356 billion euros and does not expect black numbers until 2022. The association is preparing for the winter holiday season and lobbying for corona tests for travelers instead of quarantine measures.
When asked which criteria the journal uses to publish expert opinions, the JAMA Network did not respond until our publication.