Genomic Evidence – In-Flight Transmission

Angie SzumlinskiStudies

In response to the growing international risks associated with importation of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), on March 20, 2020, New Zealand closed its borders to all but New Zealand citizens, permanent residents, and persons with an exemption. On April 9, 2020, to better control importation risks, New Zealand implemented a system of managed isolation and quarantine (MIQ) at the border. Persons arriving in New Zealand were required to stay in a government-assigned MIQ facility for at least 14 days before entering the New Zealand community. In June 2020, a system of testing persons who were returning to New Zealand and staying in MIQ facilities was instituted; nasopharyngeal swabs were taken on approximately the third and the twelfth day of the quarantine period and from anyone in whom symptoms developed or those identified as close contacts of persons with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) positive test results.

On September 29, 2020, flight EK448, which originated in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, with a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, landed in Auckland, New Zealand. During the required 14-day MIQ period, 7 passengers who had traveled on the flight received positive SARS-CoV-2 test results. The 7 passengers had begun their trip from 5 different countries before a layover in Dubai; predeparture SARS-CoV-2 test results were negative for 5. These 7 passengers had been seated within 4 rows of each other during the approximately 18-hour flight from Dubai to Auckland. Because recent studies have reported conflicting findings of the risks associated with in-flight transmission, the study undertook a comprehensive investigation to determine the potential source of infection of these travelers.

Mask wearing was not mandatory; however, 5 of the 7 passengers self-reported mask and glove use while on the plane but 2 passengers did not. Read the entire study here.

Figure 2. Timeline of likely incubation and infectious periods, indicating testing dates, for 7 passengers who tested positive for severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 infection after traveling on the same flight (EK448) from Dubai, United Arab Emirates, to Auckland, New Zealand, with a refueling stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on September 29, 2020.

Stay the course, stay well, mask up, get vaccinated, and stay tuned!