New Zealand study details COVID-19 spread on long-haul flight despite tests

A recent case study details COVID-19 transmission on a New Zealand long-haul flight, even with negative pre-departure testing results and social distancing requirements. 

The 12-page report, released by New Zealand health officials last weekFriday, follows a cluster of coronavirus cases linked to one passenger traveling on an 18-hour flight from Dubai to New Zealand in September. Though the traveler tested negative with a PCR test before the flight, researchers concluded that “at least four in-flight transmission events of SARS-CoV-2 likely took place” as the pre-symptomatic yet contagious person infected at least four others. SARS-CoV-2 is the virus that causes COVID-19.

“By combining information on disease progression, travel dynamics and genomic analysis, we conclude that at least four in-flight transmission events of SARS-CoV-2 likely took place,” the report, funded in part by the New Zealand Ministry of Health, Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, says.

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The close tracking of post-flight COVID-19 cases in this study was made possiblehanks to New Zealand’s quarantine program, which requires people returning to the country to undergo managed isolation, quarantine and testing.

Out of the 86 total passengers, seven who arrived in New Zealand on the Sept. 29 flight tested positive despite “reported use of masks and gloves in-flight.” They were seated within four rows of each other, and it was found that the virus’ genetic sequence in six out of seven positive passengers was identical, with the exception of a single mutation in one case. 

This study raises concerns about the safety of long-haul flights amid the pandemic, as in-flight transmissions occurred despite the enforcement of pre-departure tests, social distancing and and personal protective equipment, though at least one person who tested positive reported taking their mask off when sleeping and when seated. 

Other recent studies have also detailed the risks of air travel during the pandemic. A report from Irish public health officials published in the journal of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control in late October said 13 of 49 passengers on a 7½-hour flight to Dublin tested positive for COVID-19, and another 46 in contact with them in Ireland became infected. Four were hospitalized, one in the ICU.

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“This outbreak demonstrates the potential for spread of SARS-CoV-2 linked to air travel,” the report says, while noting that researchers don’t know whether the affected passengers were infected in-flight, during a connection, or before the flight. 

However, other studies, such as a 187-page study by Harvard scientists released that same month, concluded otherwise, reporting that air travel “is as safe as or substantially safer than the routine activities people undertake during these times,” partially due to the ventilation systems on planes that refresh the air every two to three minutes as well as heavy-duty disinfecting, strict face mask enforcement and social distancing during boarding and deplaning. 

Though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discouraged traveling for Thanksgiving on Thursday, the Transportation Security Administration reported that more than 1 million air travelers still passed through security checkpoints at U.S. airports Friday and Sunday.

COVID-19: As the pandemic rages, more are flying despite CDC pleas not to travel for Thanksgiving

Contributing: Dawn Gilbertson

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