German study shows ‘lower than expected’ risk of coronavirus transmission on planes

Wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus was not widespread in March, when a group of German tourists took a long flight home from Israel – but researchers were surprised to find only two passengers outside the group had been infected.

German study shows 'lower than expected' risk of coronavirus transmission on planes
A plane in Bavaria. Photo: DPA

In a short study published Tuesday in the US medical journal JAMA Network Open, virologists at a university hospital in Frankfurt, Germany meticulously contacted all of the passengers from the flight – none of whom had worn masks at the time – to examine the actual risk posed by the presence of travelers infected with COVID-19.

On March 9th, 102 passengers boarded the Tel Aviv-Frankfurt flight that lasted four hours and 40 minutes, including a group of 24 tourists.

German authorities were alerted that the group had come into contact with an infected hotel manager in Israel, and decided to test the 24 tourists upon their arrival in Frankfurt.

Seven of them tested positive, as did another seven later on.

Four to five weeks later, researchers contacted the 78 other passengers from the flight, 90 percent of whom responded. The researchers asked them whom they had come into contact with and what symptoms they had, and tested several
of them.

READ ALSO: Germany plans to make face masks mandatory at airports

They found two passengers were most likely infected during the flight: the two people sitting across the aisle from the original seven cases.

For respiratory viruses, experts traditionally consider the contagion zone in an airplane to extend two rows of seats in front of the infected person and two rows behind.

But shockingly, a person seated in the row (seat 44K) directly ahead of two of the infected tourists (seats 45J and 45H) was not infected.

“This person from row 44 told us that he had a long conversation, and was speaking a long time with both of row 45,” Sandra Ciesek, the head of the Institute of Medical Virology in Frankfurt, told AFP, noting that made it all the more surprising he was not infected.

READ ALSO: How face masks have helped slow down the spread of coronavirus in Germany

The two passengers seated directly behind another infected tourist also did not contract COVID-19.

“We were surprised to only find two likely transmissions,” said Sebastian Hoehl, from the same Frankfurt institute.

All of the other passengers were not tested, so researchers could not exclude that some of them might have been infected. The study stresses that, in any case, viral transmission on an airplane is indeed possible if passengers do not wear masks.

But, Hoehl noted, “as the rate was lower than what we expected, and as none of the passengers wore masks, I think it is reassuring that we could not detect more” cases.

The researchers also said that multiple studies on repatriation flights from Wuhan, China at the start of the pandemic found that no transmissions occurred on board while passengers were masked.

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.