How are airports fighting the spread of disease?


15.10.2020

The analysis is clear: it is not flying itself which poses a problem in terms of risks to health, but rather the social activities before and after taking a flight. Unfortunately, the quarantine has penalised the countries that carried out the most tests. On the evening of Tuesday 13 October, a round table organised by the University of Geneva and Genève Aéroport addressed the topic of pandemic management at airports, with a panel of experts and scientists from the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) and the University of Geneva.​

Once again, the health crisis highlights that epidemics have always spread on trade routes. However, global health authorities have heavily regulated international travel and trade. The International Health Regulations (IHR) set out the specific measures to be implemented in ports, airports and at border crossings.

«At first, the crisis was over health, first and foremost. Now it must be managed on a horizontal, cross-departmental level, which will have a dramatic impact on social and economic arenas», reflected Didier Pittet, an infectious disease expert, by way of preamble. In his opinion,  travelling for a good reason should not be interrupted, because the risk of being contaminated during a flight is minimal if not non-existent on flights of short or medium duration». André Schneider, CEO of Genève Aéroport, also stated that 95% of flights departing from Geneva are of short duration with European destinations.

The risk of contracting the virus would be significantly greater if a passenger had experienced a combination of several factors: being seated next to a passenger who had tested positive for Covid, on a long-haul flight, without a mask. But this situation is somewhat rare! Antoine Flahault, Director of the Institute for Global Health at the University of Geneva, reassured the public by reminding them that «the air is renewed in Boeings and Airbuses at least six times per hour, which greatly reduces the risk of being affected by aerosolisation. The cabin of an aircraft is one of the safest places to be thanks to air filtering».

Quarantines

Asked about the issue of mandatory quarantines on returning from a country at risk, Virginie Masserey of the FOPH recognised that the system is not perfect and the criteria not ideal, because some areas of a specific country are more affected than others: «We had to come to an agreement and find an indicator to create the list. This remains an important tool which has had a deterrent effect and has slowed down the rate at which the virus comes into the country. If you stay in Switzerland, you are ten times less likely to catch the virus than if you return from a country at risk. It isn’t easy to find the best solution to prevent travellers from bringing the virus to Switzerland. We did not succeed in doing this, and would have liked to avoid the economic consequences», she stated with regret.

Rapid testing and vaccines

The issue of rapid testing on departure or arrival at airports was also discussed at the round table on 13 October. Mrs Masserey stressed that the role of the FOPH is to recommend when and how to use tests, specifying that there is no such thing as zero risk and that it is important that the tests be carried out by professionals to avoid errors in diagnosis.

Meanwhile, Professor Pittet stressed the importance of testing on a very large scale in order to better understand and interrupt the chains of transmission, specifying that «80% of the chains of transmission are known in the canton of Geneva: 30% involve the family circle, 20% involve work and 15% social activities (bars, clubs, etc.)». Tests have detection values both for asymptomatic people and diagnoses.

Less sensitive and therefore less precise rapid tests are set to be approved within a few months. According to Professor Antoine Flahault, these will be a game-changer in managing the pandemic and could be carried out at home, even if they are less efficient: «Believing that absolute safety is possible is a pipe dream if you want to resume your life as before. Let’s be more pragmatic, like the Japanese whose aim is to reduce the spread of the virus as much as possible».

At present, 40 out of 130 vaccines are undergoing clinical trials, but few are in the final stages. «The vaccine would be ideal to achieve immunity in 60% of the population» stated the head of the FOPH infection control department. However, patience will still need to be exercised, as will living with essential safety precautions during the coming months. For its part, Genève Aéroport is considering new health protocols in collaboration with the FOPH, and believes that airports must play the role of operational facilitator.

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