Risk of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) Transmission Among Air Passengers in China

Maogui Hu, Jinfeng Wang*, Hui Lin, Corrine W. Ruktanonchai, Chengdong Xu, Bin Meng, Xin Zhang, Alessandra Carioli, Yuqing Feng, Qian Yin, Jessica R. Floyd, Nick W. Ruktanonchai, Zhongjie Li, Weizhong Yang, Andrew J. Tatem, Shengjie Lai

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Theattack rate of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) transmission of a seat on airplane varies from 0.33% to 0.60%. The overall risk is relatively low, although it varies by seat distance from the index case and joint travel time.

Background Modern transportation plays a key role in the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and new variants. However, little is known about the exact transmission risk of the virus on airplanes. Methods Using the itinerary and epidemiological data of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) cases and close contacts on domestic airplanes departing from Wuhan city in China before the lockdown on 23 January 2020, we estimated the upper and lower bounds of overall transmission risk of COVID-19 among travelers. Results In total, 175 index cases were identified among 5797 passengers on 177 airplanes. The upper and lower attack rates (ARs) of a seat were 0.60% (34/5622, 95% confidence interval [CI] .43-.84%) and 0.33% (18/5400, 95% CI .21-.53%), respectively. In the upper- and lower-bound risk estimates, each index case infected 0.19 (SD 0.45) and 0.10 (SD 0.32) cases, respectively. The seats immediately adjacent to the index cases had an AR of 9.2% (95% CI 5.7-14.4%), with a relative risk 27.8 (95% CI 14.4-53.7) compared to other seats in the upper limit estimation. The middle seat had the highest AR (0.7%, 95% CI .4%-1.2%). The upper-bound AR increased from 0.7% (95% CI 0.5%-1.0%) to 1.2% (95% CI .4-3.3%) when the co-travel time increased from 2.0 hours to 3.3 hours. Conclusions The ARs among travelers varied by seat distance from the index case and joint travel time, but the variation was not significant between the types of aircraft. The overall risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission during domestic travel on planes was relatively low. These findings can improve our understanding of COVID-19 spread during travel and inform response efforts in the pandemic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e234–e240
Number of pages7
JournalClinical Infectious Diseases
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1-Jul-2022
Externally publishedYes


  • airplane
  • attack rate
  • COVID-19
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • transmission
  • KEY

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