UK Study Shows COVID-19 Air Travel Restrictions Failed to Keep the Virus Out of the Country

Wastewater samples taken from the spring of 2022 show nearly all planes entering the UK had SARS-CoV-2 in their tanks, despite restrictions and testing.

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Image for article titled UK Study Shows COVID-19 Air Travel Restrictions Failed to Keep the Virus Out of the Country
Image: Steve Parsons (AP)

It seems we’re at a point where COVID-19 infections are somewhat slowing down (or, maybe, we’ve just grown desensitized to them). And while the virus blindsided the world, some mitigation measures were lifted too soon, came too late, or didn’t work at all. Take COVID-19 travel restrictions. United Press International (UPI) reports that COVID-19 travel restrictions in the UK failed as wastewater samples from arriving flights show.

Welsh scientists took wastewater samples from flights that landed at three UK airports — Heathrow, Edinburgh, and Bristol — in the spring of 2022, specifically dates between March 8 and March 31. Samples were also taken of wastewater from the airports themselves. (Keep in mind, that at this time, at least March 8-18, unvaccinated passengers still had to test two days prior to departure and one day after arrival.) The COVID-19 virus was found in nearly all flights that had landed in the country, as well as in wastewater from the terminals. So, what happened?

UPI spoke with researcher Davey Jones, a professor in the School of Natural Sciences at Bangor University in Wales, who said, “That might have been because people developed symptoms after testing negative; or were evading the system, or for some other reason.” Jones added, “But it showed that there was essentially a failure of border control in terms of COVID surveillance.”

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An earlier study conducted surveyed 2,000 people who boarded flights heading to the UK. Researchers found that 23 percent noted they had taken their flights while feeling ill. Despite the two day testing rule, if they felt ill afterwards, they were still flying and bringing the virus with them.

UK officials lifted the testing requirement for unvaccinated passengers on March 18, 2022, but the testing during the entirety of the study showed little difference.

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But it’s not all bad though, as one microbiologist who worked on the study, Kata Farkas, said this can prepare scientists and officials prepare for the next outbreak. “This is about getting an overall picture to help UK health systems to be prepared, or, if possible, have an advance warning, of emerging diseases,” she said.