As many countries have started lifting flight restrictions despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, researchers have raised concerns about in-flight transmission. The aviation industry has been claiming that flying during the pandemic is safer than traveling by bus and train or sitting in a restaurant or a workplace. But two new international studies have provided stronger evidence suggesting that coronavirus can spread on airplanes, long flights in particular. Also Read – COVID-19 Live Updates: Cases in India surge to 54,00,619 while death toll reaches 86,752
One study is from Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology (NIHE) that appears in the November 2020 edition of the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases. It reported a cluster of COVID-19 cases among passengers on a 10-hour commercial Vietnam Airlines flight from London to Hanoi on March 2, 2020. All the 217 passengers, crew members, and their close contacts (anyone who had come within two meters for more than 15 minutes) were quarantined for two weeks. During this period, 16 people were detected to be infected with the novel coronavirus. Also Read – Face masks made from used T-shirts, bedsheets can prevent COVID-19 spread even if you sneeze
Twelve of those, including the only symptomatic person on board the flight, were passengers seated in business class. The other four infected people were personal contacts who came into close proximity with the infected passengers between the flight’s arrival and the quarantine period. Also Read – Emergency stroke scan can reveal presence of COVID-19 virus in your body
Based on their findings, the researchers concluded that there is a risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights. In fact, it has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class–like settings with spacious seating arrangements, they said.
They stressed on better on-board infection prevention measures and arrival screening procedures to make flying safe.
Air passengers tested positive for severe COVID-19 infection
Another study appearing in the same issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases identified four air travelers with severe acute respiratory syndrome COVID-19 infection. They had traveled on a 15-hour flight from Boston to Hong Kong on March 9, 2020. The study was conducted by scientists from a multi-national group of institutions, including the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine and the University of Hong Kong. All of the four infected persons, two passengers, and two cabin crew members, were asymptomatic at the time of the flight but later tested positive for Covid-19 within five to 11 days later.
The two passengers were a married couple who both sat in window seats in business class. Both developed symptoms in the days immediately following the flight. One of two flight attendants who tested COVID positive had served the couple during the flight. The researchers found “the near full-length viral genomes from all four patients were 100% identical”, which proves that the transmission occurred between the four patients.
Both these studies strongly suggest that SARS-CoV-2 can be transmitted on airplanes. According to a media report, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has also identified nearly 11,000 people who potentially were exposed to the coronavirus on flights.
Using antiseptic nasal spray may help limit coronavirus spread
Meanwhile, a team of ENT doctors has suggested that an antiseptic nasal spray containing povidone-iodine may help curb transmission of the new coronavirus.
During test-tube experiments, the team found that a povidone-iodine nasal spray – typically used to disinfect the inside of the nose before surgery – inactivated the virus in as little as 15 seconds. The findings were published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.
However, they caution, that routine use of povidone-iodine would not be safe for pregnant women and patients with thyroid conditions.