‘Bad math’: Airlines’ COVID safety analysis challenged by expert

In this news, we discuss the ‘Bad math’: Airlines’ COVID safety analysis challenged by expert.

PARIS (Reuters) – A campaign by coronavirus-hit aviation giants to persuade the world it is safe to fly has been questioned by one of the scientists whose research it relies on.

US infectious disease specialist Dr David Freedman said he declined to participate in a recent presentation by global airline IATA with planners Airbus, Boeing and Embraer citing his work.

While he welcomed some industry findings as “encouraging,” Freedman said a key claim about the improbability of catching COVID-19 on airplanes was based on “bad math.”

Airlines and aircraft manufacturers are eager to resume international travel, even as a second wave of infections and restrictions take hold in many countries.

The Oct. 8 media presentation listed in-flight infections reported in scientific studies or by IATA airlines – and compared the tally with the total number of passenger trips this year.

“With only 44 identified potential cases of flight-related transmission among 1.2 billion travelers, that’s one in 27 million,” IATA medical adviser Dr David Powell said in a press release. , echoing in the comments at the event.

IATA said its findings “align with low numbers reported in a recently published peer-reviewed study by Freedman and Wilder-Smith.”

But Freedman, who co-wrote the article in the Journal of Travel Medicine with Dr Annelies Wilder-Smith of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said he challenged IATA’s risk calculation because the reported count had no direct relation to the unknown. actual number of infections.

“They wanted me to present things at this press conference, but honestly I objected to the title they put on it,” a University of Alabama scholar told Reuters.

“It was bad calculations. 1.2 billion passengers in 2020 is not a fair denominator because hardly anyone has been tested. How do you know how many people have actually been infected? ” he said. “The absence of proof is not proof of absence.”

IATA believes his calculation remains a “relevant and credible” sign of low risk, a spokesperson said in response to requests for comment from the industry body and its lead physician Powell.

“We didn’t pretend it was a definitive and absolute number.”

Wilder-Smith could not immediately be reached for comment.


While the pandemic has seen some airlines leave middle seats empty to reassure customers, the industry has opposed making these measures mandatory.

Aircraft cabins are considered less risky than many interior spaces due to their powerful ventilation and layout, with forward-facing passengers separated by rows of seats. Ceiling-to-floor airflows sweep pathogens through high-quality filters.

This understanding is supported by simulations and tests conducted by aircraft manufacturers as well as by a US Department of Defense study released Thursday.

The joint presentation with the three manufacturers marked a rare closure of the ranks among the industrial archrivals, behind a message intended to reassure.

Sitting next to an infected economy passenger is comparable to a distance of seven feet in an office, Boeing tests have found, posing an acceptable risk with masks. Standard health advice often recommends a six-foot separation.

Airbus showed similar results, while Embraer tested the dispersion of droplets from a cough. About 0.13% by mass ended up in the facial area of ​​an adjacent passenger, falling to 0.02% with masks.

Dr Henry Wu, associate professor at the Emory School of Medicine in Atlanta, said the results were inconclusive in themselves because the minimum infectious dose remains unknown and the risks increase with time of exposure.

“It’s just additive,” said Wu, who would prefer the middle seats to remain empty. “A 10 hour flight will be 10 times more risky than an hour flight.”

Nonetheless, a commercial jet cabin is “probably one of the safest public environments you can find yourself in,” he added. “Sitting in a crowded bar for a few hours will be much riskier.”


Scientists are looking at dozens of cases of infection on board, as well as flights with passengers who are contagious but without known transmission.

In March, 11 infectious passengers on a five-hour Sydney-Perth flight transmitted the virus to 11 others, according to an article in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases.

Of those infected, two were seated within three rows of an infectious passenger and one in six rows, suggesting that the typical two-row contact tracing might have missed them.

According to a study by Vietnamese and Australian academics, a victim of a 10-hour flight between London and Hanoi infected 16 other people, including 12 in her business class cabin.

“Long flights… can provide conditions for mass-market events,” the study said, adding that its findings “challenge” airlines’ claim that distance on board is not necessary.

IATA points out that many of the flights scientists have looked at in published studies took place before mask wear became widespread and reduced the risk of infection.

His presentation admitted that the statistic of 1 in 27 million “may be an underestimate,” while arguing that in-flight infections were still less likely than love at first sight, even though only 10% of actual cases did. count.

“This is misleading,” Wu said of Emory. “Considering how difficult it is to identify them, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was much less than 1%. The only thing I’m sure is that it’s a fantastic understatement.

Reporting by Laurence Frost; Editing by Pravin Char

Original © Thomson Reuters

Originally posted 2020-10-19 02:36:13.

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