it ITEM reprinted with permission from NerdWallet.

It seems like all my friends got COVID this summer and many think they got it on a plane. But this is as anecdotal as data gets. What does, you know, science should i say

I spoke with Arnold Barnett, a statistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who co-wrote a recent paper that modeled the risk of contracting COVID while flying early in the pandemic. He and his student searched the available data and built a complex mathematical model to determine the risk of infection on board. However, they faced limitations because there was no organized effort by the US or any other country to systematically trace traces of COVID transmissions aboard aircraft.

“No one is controlled. No one is asked if they have come down with COVID,” he explains. “No effort has been made to understand where people got it. We have so little data.”

That’s right, of all the billions spent fighting the virus, supplying home testing kits and bailing out airlines, little or nothing was spent on answering the fundamental question of where and how people actually contracted the disease in the first place. Models like Barnett’s, while useful, offer only best guesses.

“If we had actual data from the United States, then we probably wouldn’t need a model,” he says.

A systematic effort to contact traces on a flight that landed in Vietnam revealed that, of the 16 passengers who tested positive, 12 were in business class, where a symptomatic case was found. In other words, the same person made a group of premium ticket holders at the front of the plane sick.

However, this study from Vietnam’s National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology was conducted in March 2020. Think what could have happened if we had continued to collect data throughout the pandemic.

See also: What will insurance coverage of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 look like? The Biden administration is trying to figure this out

Unknown unknowns

Flash back to the fall of 2020. The first wave of COVID had passed, and potential travelers were wondering: Is it safe to fly home for the holidays?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, based on a curious study commissioned by multiple federal agencies that involved mannequins coughing on each other, suggested that “most viruses and other germs do not spread easily on flights because of the way how air circulates and is filtered in airplanes. “

You may remember that study. You may not know (as I didn’t, until recently) that the researchers who conducted it received so much criticism that they attached a disclaimer, suggesting that the study’s findings “were not designed to provide information about applicable in relation to in-flight viral risk, safe flight times or seating capacity.”

The CDC has removed its messaging and references to the study, while airlines such as United Airlines continue to cite it as evidence of air travel safety.

The United Airlines website still mentions the problematic study.

United Airlines

I was writing about all this in 2020, trying to parse these confusing messages, and used the mannequin study as evidence that flying wasn’t as dangerous as we first thought.

It turned out I was wrong, but I never learned I was wrong until years later.

The real problem is not a poorly interpreted study. It’s that we still don’t know the rate at which people contracted (and died from) COVID after boarding the plane. Are 1% of COVID cases caused by air travel? Or 10%? More?

We have no idea, and this could have huge ramifications down the road.

Read: What celebs who fly frequently – and the reactions they’ve received – tell us about the growing popularity of private jets

Flying into the unknown

Barnett’s model produced a nice round number, suggesting that the odds of contracting COVID on a full two-hour flight were about 1 in 1,000 at the start of the pandemic. But he believes the risks have probably increased significantly since then.

“Omicron BA.5 is much stickier than previous versions,” says Barnett. “And now people generally aren’t wearing masks on airplanes.”

Fortunately, vaccines and treatments have reduced the death rate from COVID, so the risks are more manageable. But what if a new variant emerges that — knock on wood — avoids vaccines altogether? Or (no, really, knock on wood) cause serious illness in young people or children? We all want a real answer to the simple questions: How bad is the transmission of COVID on airplanes? Is one airline safer than another?

Maddeningly, puzzlingly, head-scratchingly, we still don’t know for sure.

“All models are wrong, some are useful,” Barnett says with a wry smile.

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Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @sambubutdif.

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