This article reprinted with permission from NerdWallet.
It seems like all my friends got COVID this summer and many think they got it on a plane. But this is as anecdotal as the data. What does it do, you know science I must say?
I spoke with Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at MIT who co-authored a recent paper that models the risk of contracting COVID while flying early in the pandemic. He and his student reviewed the available data and built a complex mathematical model to determine the risk of contamination on board. Yet they ran into limitations because there was no organized effort by the U.S. or any country to systematically contact trace COVID transmissions aboard airplanes.
“No one has been checked. “No one asks if they have COVID,” he explains. “There was no attempt to find out where people got it from. We have so little data.”
That’s right, of all the billions spent fighting the virus, shipping home testing kits and bailing out the airlines, almost nothing was spent on answering the basic question of where and how people actually contracted the disease. Models like Barnett’s, while useful, offer only best guesses.
“If we had actual data from the United States, then maybe we wouldn’t need a model,” he says.
A systematic Trace contact attempt on a flight that landed in Vietnam found that of the 16 passengers who tested positive, 12 were in business class, where one symptomatic case was found. In other words, a bunch of expensive ticket holders at the front of the plane got sick from the same person.
Yet this study by Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology was conducted in March 2020. Think what might have happened if we had continued to collect data throughout the pandemic.
See also: What will insurance coverage of COVID-19 vaccines and treatments look like? The Biden administration is trying to figure that out
Cast your mind back to the fall of 2020. The first wave of COVID had passed and would-be travelers were wondering: Is it safe to fly home for the holidays?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on a bizarre study commissioned by multiple federal agencies that involved mannequins coughing at each other, suggests that “most viruses and other germs don’t spread easily on flights because of how the air circulates and filtered into the planes. “
You may remember this study. You may not know (as I didn’t until recently) that the researchers who conducted it received so much criticism that they added a disclaimer suggesting that the study’s findings “are not intended to provide useful information about viral risk during flight, safe flight times or seating capacity.’
The CDC has removed its communications and references to the study, while airlines such as United Airlines continue to cite it as evidence of the safety of air travel.
United Airlines’ website still mentions the problematic study.
I wrote about all this in 2020, trying to analyze these confusing messages and using the mannequin study as evidence that flying is not as dangerous as we first thought.
I turned out to be wrong, but I didn’t even learn I was wrong until years later.
The real problem is not a poorly interpreted study. It’s that we still don’t know the rate at which people contract (and die from) COVID after getting on a plane. Are 1% of COVID cases caused by air travel? Or 10%? More ▼?
We have no idea and this could have serious consequences in the future.
Read: What celebrity frequent flyers — and the backlash they’ve gotten — tell us about the growing popularity of private jets
Flight into the unknown
Barnett’s model showed a nice round number, suggesting that the odds of contracting COVID on a full two-hour flight were about 1 in 1,000 at the start of the pandemic. But he believes the risks have likely increased significantly since then.
“Omicron BA.5 is much more infectious than earlier versions,” says Barnett. “And now people generally don’t wear masks on airplanes.”
Fortunately, vaccines and treatments have reduced the death rate from COVID, so the risks are more manageable. But what if a new variant comes along that – knock on wood – avoids vaccines altogether? Or (no, really, knock on wood) cause serious illness in young people or children? We will all want real answers to simple questions: How bad is the transmission of COVID on airplanes? Is one airline safer than another?
Maddening, confusing, dizzying, we still don’t know for sure.
“All models are wrong, some are useful,” Barnett says with a wry smile.
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Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @sambubutdif.