The second wave of COVID-19 in Taiwan is cause for increasing concern. For four consecutive days, starting on Monday, the government has announced new confirmed cases, including several members of a tour group who visited Turkey. Among 23 new cases that the Central Epidemic Command Center announced on Wednesday, four were members of that tour group. As of Thursday, only two individuals in the entire tour group have tested negative for the virus.
Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the center, has expressed concern over this cluster of infections.
As of Thursday, Turkey and Egypt had reported only 191 and 210 confirmed COVID-19 cases respectively — fewer than those being reported throughout Europe and the US, so why is the positive diagnosis rate so high for this group of tourists? What factors should be considered when determining the degree of risk?
Our research team has been running computer simulations of various diseases for many years, and we have conducted numerous evaluative studies of public health policies in response to the potential for emerging epidemic diseases. Based on our experience, we can offer a response and some advice.
When simulating the transmission dynamics of an emerging epidemic disease, these programs execute hundreds or thousands of simulations to cover all possible circumstances and variables. They try to include factors that governments might not anticipate, using variations of common transmission patterns, and making modifications in response to urgent or rare situations.
These models consider many aspects of overseas travel, including flying, processing customs paperwork, checking in and retrieving luggage. The details of the international travel system are the same whether they occur in Turkey, Egypt, Europe, the US or any other country.
Based on these factors and our experience, Chen is correct in asserting that this coronavirus can be found in the cabins of many airplanes, and therefore people should avoid flying. However, not enough emphasis is being placed on the roles of international airports in spreading COVID-19, due to the numerous passengers and many aircraft arriving for maintenance.
From a statistical point of view, the probability of physically encountering the novel coronavirus or of being exposed to infected individuals in large international airports or in the cabins of airplanes is much higher than in homes, workplaces, schools or other public spaces.
These pandemic simulations show that large international airports and airplane cabins are major sources of risk, and are high on the list of reasons COVID-19 has spread so widely and quickly.
To protect the health of all individuals and their families, and to help the government delay the spread of COVID-19 in Taiwan, people must avoid all international air travel and airports during the pandemic.
Huang Chung-yuan is a professor at Chang Gung University’s Graduate Institute of Computer Science and Information Engineering. Chin Wei-chien is a research fellow at Singapore University of Technology and Design.
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