A flight from Ben-Gurion Airport in Israel to Frankfurt Germany which flew just before the Coronavirus (COVID-19) worldwide shutdown is integral to a new study on the transmission of the virus. Twenty four of the passengers on the March 9th flight, out of a total of 102, had contact with an Israeli hotel manager during their trip who later tested positive for the Coronavirus. The research-based on the testing of the passengers has been published in the Journal of American Medicine.
The twenty-four people in question were all tested for the Coronavirus through the use of throat swabs. Seven of them tested positive for COVID 19. Of these four were already symptomatic during the flight.
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Interestingly, the study suggests that the transmission rate may actually have been slowed because of the confines of the airplane. At the same time it suggests that had the people worn masks it could have slowed the transmission rate further.
Two people who sat in the row across from people in the group of twenty-four were infected on the flight. However, one person who sat in the row ahead of the infected passengers and who spoke with them was not infected, AFP reports.
“This person from row 44 told us that he had a long conversation, and was speaking a long time with both of row 45,” Sandra Ciesek, the head of the Institute of Medical Virology in Frankfurt, told AFP.
According to the article, a total of 71 of the other 78 passengers (91%) who had been exposed to the group on the flight were interviewed by the researchers within six weeks of their return to Germany. Serum samples were obtained from 13 of these individuals 6 to 9 weeks after the flight.
So what, exactly, does this mean for air travel? Who knows? It would seem that this research is suggesting that there is not a significant likelihood of contracting the Coronavirus on an airplane even when there are symptomatic carriers of COVID-19 on board. However, this was just one flight. The person who had direct contact with sick people and who himself did not contract COVID-19 may simply have had natural immunity. We still do not yet know what percentage of the population is immune. And the testing was conducted several months ago. Even today they say that there may be more than a ten percent rate for false-negative results in Corona Virus testing.
The flight in question was on a Boeing 737-900. This plane has different configurations and can hold up to 200 people. So the flight as about half empty. It was also a short fight. If it had gone, let’s say, from Tel Aviv to New York the results may have been different. And every airline has different policies concerning in-flight hygiene and so forth.
So even if this study had much more positive results it would not serve as a sign that air travel right now is safe. Until an effective immediate test for the Coronavirus is developed we should not be taking any chances.