A study conducted by Ireland Health Service has linked 13 Covid-19 cases to a single 7.5-hour international flight over the summer.

The study, published in the peer-reviewed infectious disease journal Eurosurveillance, also says that those flyers went on to infect 46 other people within Ireland.

Of the infected individuals who were on the flight, nine wore masks. One, a 1-year-old, did not. Researchers did not know if the other three individuals wore masks.

Related column: Wheels Up: Airlines should tone down their Covid safety assertions

The flight was just 17% full, with 49 of 283 seats occupied. Researchers did not report which airline operated the flight and they did not give a specific day or month on which the flight took place.

The authors said they did not know which passenger or passengers had the virus when they got on the plane. The flyers could also have been exposed to Covid-19 at airports or prior to travel. But the authors also noted that the flight was the only common exposure point for at least four of the flyers.

Furthermore, a DNA analysis of virus samples from five of the infected flyers was strongly suggestive of a single point of infection, they said. Those five flyers had connected to the Ireland flight from three continents. 

"This outbreak demonstrates the potential for spread of [Covid-19] linked to air travel," the authors wrote.

Recent studies have painted varying pictures of the risk of Covid-19 infections on aircraft. A few others have documented multiple in-flight transmissions, including one study that found that a business-class passenger flying from London to Hanoi, Vietnam, in March infected 15 other flyers. That flight took place before mask mandates. 

Conversely, a Department of Defense study last month found that the potential for the Covid-19 virus to spread within an aircraft is minimal. Small virus droplets known as aerosols, expelled from a sick passenger, have no more than a 3-in-1,000 chance of reaching the breathing zone of a passenger in the neighboring economy seat provided that both passengers are wearing masks, that study's authors found. The hospital-grade HEPA filters that most commercial aircraft are equipped with are key in reducing virus risk, the authors said. That study was not published in a peer-reviewed journal. 

Also last month, a Harvard University research team released a report saying that the risk of Covid-19 transmission on airplanes is lower than the transmission risk in other common settings such as grocery stores and indoor restaurants. 

The Harvard team reached those findings by doing an assessment of existing research on Covid-19 as it applies to aviation and by examining models of aircraft transmission that have been undertaken by governments and the aviation industry. Researchers said they combined the assessment with their own modeling.

The research was funded by air transport industry stakeholders, including the trade group Airlines for America.

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