Researchers accurately simulate COVID-19 transmission on planes - study

A team from China and Hong Kong created a simulation of SARS-CoV-2 spread onboard a passenger flight.

Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Ma (photo credit: NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES - NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (greenish brown) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (pink), also known as novel coronavirus, isolated from a patient sample. Image captured and color-enhanced at the NIAID Integrated Research Facility (IRF) in Fort Detrick, Ma
(photo credit: NATIONAL INSTITUTE OF ALLERGY AND INFECTIOUS DISEASES - NIH/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)

Noting the role of commercial flights in the rapid spread of COVID-19, researchers from China and Hong Kong simulated the airplane environment and the fluid dynamics relevant to the airborne spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and correctly predicted the number of infected and uninfected passengers on a hypothetical flight with 84% accuracy.

In a study published on Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal Indoor Air, the research team found that SARS-CoV-2, spread on flights via coughing or talking, is distributed throughout the cabin of the plane with the air circulation.

Included in the team were Wensi Wang and Feng Wang from the Tianjin Key Laboratory of Indoor Air Environmental Quality Control at the School of Environmental Science and Engineering at Tianjin University, Dayi Lai, PhD, Associate Professor and Associate Head of the Department of Architecture at the School of Design at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, and Qingyan Chen of the Department of Building Environment and Energy Engineering at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University.

The researchers then counted the number of virus particles inhaled per passenger to determine how many passengers were infected. Based on their simulation, about 84% of passengers on a hypothetical flight from London, United Kingdom, to Hanoi, Vietnam, were infected with SARS-CoV-2.

A Southwest Airlines plane approaches to land at San Diego International Airport as US telecom companies, airlines and the FAA continue to discuss the potential impact of 5G wireless services on aircraft electronics in San Diego, California, US, January 6, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE/FILE PHOTO)A Southwest Airlines plane approaches to land at San Diego International Airport as US telecom companies, airlines and the FAA continue to discuss the potential impact of 5G wireless services on aircraft electronics in San Diego, California, US, January 6, 2022. (credit: REUTERS/MIKE BLAKE/FILE PHOTO)

Furthermore, the researchers found that speaking less often and wearing masks decreased passengers' risk of infection since the pathogen is spread via aerosol.

Study coauthor Lai was excited at the success of the simulation, adding that the study adds to evidence that mask-wearing decreases the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection:

"We are very pleased to see that our model validated by experimental data can achieve such a high accuracy in predicting COVID-19 transmission in airliner cabins," Lai said. "Also, it’s important to know that wearing masks makes a significant impact on reducing the transmission."