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A travel group report says flying is safe. The doctor whose research it cited says not so fast.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), a global airline trade group representing 290 carriers in 120 countries, published a report this month aiming to reassure grounded travelers about the future of flying. The group collected medical journal data on in-flight coronavirus cases and used it to declare that commercial flights have a “low incidence of inflight COVID-19 transmission” when masks are worn.



(Illustration by Woody Harrington for The Washington Post)


(Illustration by Woody Harrington for The Washington Post)

Following an abundance of new research, the report says, only 44 cases of coronavirus have been linked to a flight, during a period when 1.2 billion passengers traveled.

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But a doctor whose work was cited in the report says that the group is misrepresenting his findings by only counting proven flight-linked cases that were published in medical journals.

“IATA is taking it to an extreme saying there’s ‘little’ risk in flying,” says David Freedman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Alabama whose February 2020 study is cited in the IATA report. “What they want is to throw this number on the risk of flying … and we don’t know what that risk is yet. I’m not saying the risk is high, but there is some risk. It just looks like masks help a lot.”

Is it safer to fly or drive during the pandemic? 5 health experts weigh in.

The bottom line, Freedman says, is that cases linked to air travel are very difficult to scientifically prove because passengers are not usually monitored after flying and therefore are not tallied if they become sick. It’s also nearly impossible to determine whether sick passengers picked up the virus on a plane as opposed to in an airport or on the way there, he says. “And if you can’t prove it, it doesn’t end up in a journal.”

A more recent study of Freedman’s, published in September 2020, says “the absence of large numbers of published in-flight transmissions of SARS-CoV-2 is not definitive evidence of safety.”

While an abundance of in-flight research on covid-19 has recently come to light, Freedman is not alone in his assessment that it’s unclear if flying is a low-risk endeavor amid the pandemic.

Brad Pollock, the associate dean of public health sciences at the University of California at Davis, agrees with Freedman’s assessment of IATA’s report, calling it an “overreach.” Studies do not account for unpredictable passengers who board planes every day, he says.

“There’s movement in the cabin to consider, but also so many people improperly wear a mask below their nostrils,” Pollock says. “That’s more of an issue than what kind of mask they’re wearing. If everyone wears their mask properly on the plane, we’re going to be much better off.”

In September, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that nearly 11,000 people have been potentially exposed to the coronavirus on flights. The CDC told The Washington Post that of those in-flight exposures, “an absence of cases identified or reported is not evidence that there were no cases.” On Monday,

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FDA opens private Covid vaccine meetings to the public in bid to gain trust as Trump pressures for fast approval

The FDA took the unusual step Thursday in opening to the public a routine meeting with an advisory group that’s weighing in on approving the coronavirus vaccine as the agency battles public concerns about its safety as well as political pressure from President Donald Trump to approve it before the Nov. 3 election.



a person in a blue shirt: A health worker injects a person during clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida.


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A health worker injects a person during clinical trials for a Covid-19 vaccine at Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Florida.

The Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, an outside group of researchers and physicians who are advising the Food and Drug Administration on whether to approve a Covid-19 vaccine, debated the standards needed to ensure a Covid-19 vaccine is safe and effective in a meeting broadcast on YouTube and C-SPAN. Those are key questions among medical experts who worry the U.S. will approve a vaccine before it has been adequately tested.

Officials at the meeting Thursday said the public forum was “critical” to build public trust and confidence in the development of potential vaccines, which are being developed in record time. FDA officials promised that any vaccine would undergo rigorous testing before being distributed to the public.

“Vaccine development can be expedited. However, I want to stress that it cannot, and must not, be rushed,” said Dr. Marion Gruber, director of FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review, adding the agency would not lower its standards.

Trump has pushed the FDA to approve a drug in time to distribute by the Nov. 3 election — a daunting task even his closest advisors have said is near impossible.

“I think we should have it before the election, but frankly the politics gets involved and that’s okay. They want to play their games, it’s going to be right after the election,” Trump said in a video he posted on Twitter on Oct. 7. “The FDA has acted as quickly as they’ve ever acted in history. There’s never been a time, and no president’s ever pushed them like I’ve pushed them either, to be honest.”

The agency is approving drugs “in a matter of weeks” that used to take years, he added.

Video: Dr. Patel on how the White House should be dealing with the virus outbreak: ‘This should go well beyond what’s standard’ (MSNBC)

Dr. Patel on how the White House should be dealing with the virus outbreak: ‘This should go well beyond what’s standard’

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Four drugmakers backed by the U.S. are still conducting their late-stage trials, and medical experts don’t expect to see trial data needed for FDA authorization until later this month at the earliest.

Because of the pandemic, U.S. health officials and researchers have been accelerating the development of vaccine candidates by investing in multiple stages of research even though doing so could be for naught if the vaccine ends up not being effective or safe.

The FDA, under pressure from the White House, has faced skepticism from medical experts that the vaccine approval

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