A single airline passenger unknowingly sickened with coronavirus managed to infect 15 other people aboard the 10-hour trip to Vietnam, highlighting the dangers of travel amid the pandemic.
The global health crisis had only just begun its spread across Europe when the plane took off from a London airport back in March. By the time it touched down in the Vietnamese city of Hanoi, 12 passengers in business class, two in economy and a single crew member had contracted the fast-spreading disease.
Researchers behind a new Centers for Disease Control study, slated to be published in November, identified a 27-year-old business woman from Vietnam to be the likely source of the outbreak. She’d been based in London since early January and was experiencing a sore throat ahead of her return home.
“On February 22, case 1 and her sister returned to Milan, Italy, and subsequently traveled to Paris, France, for the yearly Fashion Week before returning back to London on February 25,” they wrote in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.
Around that time, few cases had been reported in Britain and masks had not yet been required for the flight, which departed on March 1.
“She was seated in business class and continued to experience the sore throat and cough throughout the flight,” the researchers added.
Five days later, she went to the hospital and tested positive for coronavirus.
CDC researchers then tracked down all 217 passengers and crew, tested them for the virus and ordered them quarantine.
Investigators said there was no other likely way any of the 15 people could have been infected aside from exposure to the sick patient.
“The most likely route of transmission during the flight is aerosol or droplet transmission from case 1, particularly for persons seated in business class,” they wrote.
“Contact with case 1 might also have occurred outside the airplane at the airport, in particular among business class passengers in the predeparture lounge area or during boarding.”
And while researchers believe masks are an effective tool to prevent the spread of the virus, they called for additional on-board precautions and screening procedures.
“The risk for on-board transmission of SARS-CoV-2 during long flights is real and has the potential to cause COVID-19 clusters of substantial size, even in business class-like settings with spacious seating arrangements well beyond the established distance used to define close contact on airplanes,” the study concluded.
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