Here we go…..
As the coronavirus spreads, the nation’s leading health official told a Senate committee on Feb. 25 that “we cannot hermetically seal off the United States to a virus.”
The comments from Alex Azar II, head of Health and Human Services, heightened concerns about the effects of the coronavirus in the U.S., which so far has sickened a relatively small number – 57 – of people in the U.S.
And with hundreds of new cases of the coronavirus reported in South Korea, a spike of deaths in Iran, and a 10-town lockdown in Italy, the rapidly spreading COVID-19 may be on the verge of becoming a pandemic. The World Health Organization now says the disease has “pandemic potential.”
This is only the latest outbreak to show how quickly pathogens can spread in a changing world. The worldwide response is a testament to the immediate need for intervention and containment: flights canceled, cruise ships quarantined, travel banned, and a rigorous monitoring of the Chinese response.
What is now beyond dispute is that airplanes are giving the virus a big boost. As legal and public health scholars, we study how airline travel contributes to the spread of infectious agents, and how potential vaccines could limit it.
The global impact of flights
The 2002 SARS epidemic cost airlines an estimated US$7 billion. After factoring in suspended flights, the impingement on trade, and the transport of Chinese-made medical supplies, the cost of COVID-19 will likely be much larger.
This is nothing new. Air travel is a way to spread many virulent infectious diseases, including diphtheria, hepatitis A, influenza A and B, measles, mumps, meningococcus, rubella, tuberculosis, norovirus – the list goes on. In the U.S., airlines move more than two-and-a-half million people per day, squeezing them into long metal cylinders where all share the same air, the same restrooms, and take meals shoulder-to-shoulder for hours and hours.
Measles outbreaks have begun at airports. One plane carrying a single symptomatic SARS patient saw the disease develop in at least 16 others. Transmission of seasonal influenza during flights is well documented; after 9-11, when U.S. airline travel stopped abruptly, the pattern of mortality associated with it or pneumonia dramatically shifted. Consistently, the research finds the single most significant predictor of influenza spread is domestic airline volume.
There is no doubt that close contact, especially when prolonged, spreads contagion. This is true for respiratory droplets, direct skin contact, and sometimes, fecal or oral spread. Making matters much worse: Airlines, taking people from place to place, turn what might otherwise be local outbreaks into worldwide crises.
It’s hard to conceive a more efficient way to spread infectious disease.