**Update: 24/06/2020 @ 09:11 UTC – Emirates suspends flights from Pakistan from today. Details below**
On Saturday, an Emirates flight to Hong Kong was found to have 26 passengers who tested positive for COVID-19. The number of coronavirus cases added to the highest daily increase in Hong Kong for more than two months.
Emirates passengers carry the virus to Hong Kong
As reported by the South China Morning Post today, an Emirates flight arriving in Hong Kong on Saturday was carrying 26 passengers who tested positive for coronavirus. That is the highest known number of cases on a single flight. However, many destinations don’t require testing on arrival, so there could have been flights with more cases.
The passengers arrived aboard the Emirates Boeing 777-300ER, operating as flight number 380 from Dubai. While all of the infected passengers had connected from Pakistan, they appear not to have been seated together. They were spread out around the cabin from rows 18 to 44.
Most overseas travelers are still banned from entering Hong Kong except for the repatriation of residents, and they must undergo COVID-19 testing. But, since June 1, Hong Kong International Airport has resumed operations for transfer and transit passengers following a two-month ban.
Simple Flying reached to Emirates for comment. A spokesperson replied on Wednesday, saying,
“Following the announcement of positive COVID-19 cases in Hong Kong relating to certain passengers who traveled on our flights, Emirates has taken the decision to temporarily suspend passenger services from Pakistan, from 24 June 04:00 Pakistan LT. We are coordinating closely with the various authorities and will review and implement any required additional measures to satisfy all parties before we resume services from Pakistan.
“We remain committed to serving our customers in Pakistan and are working hard to resume services as soon as possible. In the meantime, Emirates will continue to operate repatriation flights into Pakistan as per the announced schedule, and operate cargo services that support the trade and movement of goods between Pakistan, UAE and our global network.”
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Passengers had the virus before traveling
Given the incubation period of COVID-19, it’s very likely that the passengers who tested positive already had the virus before setting out on their journey. In recent weeks, Pakistan has seen a rise in cases. Fortunately, they were tested immediately on arriving so that appropriate action could be taken. However, how many people did they come into close contact with during their journey who may now be infected?
What we don’t know is if the passengers knew each other, if they sat close together on the connecting flight from Pakistan, or if they all got infected separately from each other. Dubai is operating thermal screening, so it would appear that these passengers didn’t give cause for concern at the time of boarding.
Fears of coronavirus spread on international flights
As international flights resume around the world, many people have voiced concerns about the spread of COVID-19 resulting in a second wave. The arrival of the 26 infected Emirates passengers made those fears seem more of a reality.
In a similar incident earlier this month, when 12 of the 91 passengers on a Qatar Airways flight to Athens tested positive on arrival. While the infected passengers were quarantined in a hotel for 14 days, the remainder were considered high risk and quarantined for seven days. Greece imposed a temporary ban on Qatar flying to Athens.
All airlines are putting health regimes in place to try and prevent the spread of the virus. Most insist on travelers wearing masks and are providing hand sanitizers and sanitizing wipes. Cleaning procedures on aircraft and in airports have been stepped up. Some carriers are leaving seats empty to maintain social distancing.
Emirate’s president, Sir Tim Clark, recently said that, while the airline was implementing safety measures, social distancing on aircraft is not a long-term option. Advanced air filtration systems on planes reduce the risk of transmission of the virus.