Coronavirus on a plane: Scientists looked at transmission of the virus on an international flight

  • A German case study found low Covid-19 transmission on a plane
  • Seven positive cases only infected two passengers
  • If masks had been worn, the transmission rate might have been even lower

As South Africa heads into Level 2 of lockdown, interprovincial travel has opened up again, including domestic air travel.

There is, however, no great cause for concern, as experts have found that you're more likely to pick up the coronavirus in a shopping centre, office or the airport itself than on a plane, where air filters are highly effective at removing viruses. 

But what are the real chances of contracting Covid-19 if you're flying with people onboard that are positive?

READ | How to stay safe while flying – where allowed – during the pandemic 

German case study

A research letter by German scientists, published by JAMA, analysed the transmission of the coronavirus on an international flight where a tourist group with infected members were among the passengers. 

Their case study focused on a flight of just under five hours from Tel Aviv in Israel to Frankfurt in Germany on a Boeing 737-900, with a total of 102 passengers. The flight took place in March, before measures like masks were implemented. 

The tourist group on the flight consisted of 24 people who'd had contact with a hotel manager who tested positive for Covid-19. No one in the group was tested before the flight.

Positive cases

The group was tested for the virus on arrival in Germany, and seven were found to be positive. Four of them had shown symptoms during the flight, two were presymptomatic, and one remained asymptomatic.

They also interviewed 91% of the rest of the passengers on the flight, checking for Covid-19 symptoms and did antibody tests on 13 passengers six to nine weeks after the flight.

Of these passengers, two tested positive, while seven reported having had Covid-19-like symptoms within 14 days after the flight, but tested negative for antibodies.

READ MORE | Avoid non-essential dental visits until Covid transmission rates drop, WHO urges

Two transmissions

"We discovered two likely SARS-CoV-2 transmissions on this flight, with seven index cases. These transmissions may have also occurred before or after the flight," write the researchers.

"The risk of transmission of droplet-mediated infections on an aircraft depends on proximity to an index case and on other factors, such as movement of passengers and crew, fomites, and contact among passengers in the departure gate."

The passengers who became infected onboard were also seated within two rows of the infected members of the tourist group.

Cabin airflow keeps you safe

The researchers hypothesise that the cabin's airflow – from ceiling to floor and from front to rear – contributed to the low transmission rate on the plane, and believe that had masks been worn, the transmission rate would have been even lower. 

The scientists do, however, point out that they did not reach out to the crew of the plane and weren't able to contact all the passengers on the plane. This means that some positive cases might have slipped through the cracks. 

READ | Here are the best and worst materials for face masks

Image credit: Pixabay

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