Hong Kong has reported that 26 passengers onboard Emirates flight 380 from Dubai to Hong Kong have tested positive for COVID-19, leading to the largest daily spike in new cases within the region since April.
The passengers landed in Hong Kong aboard a Boeing 777-300ER on Saturday, 20 June, and were unable to exit the terminal until they had completed a test for the virus, as per current immigration policy in Hong Kong.
It is understood that all 26 passengers who tested positive had flown to Dubai from Pakistan, however it is believed that the passengers were not known to one another and were not seated together throughout the Emirates 380 flight.
This would suggest that the passengers had each become exposed to the virus prior to boarding their flight to Hong Kong.
According to an announcement made by Emirates, the passengers onboard of the flight who tested positive upon arrival in Hong Kong were seated in rows: 18, 20, 25, 26, 28, 29, 30, 33, 34, 36, 40 and 44.
Hong Kong also imported two additional cases of COVID-19 over the weekend; a 58-year-old man aboard a Cathay Pacific flight from Manila and a 39-year-old woman returning from India via Malaysia on Cathay Dragon, according to Hong Kong’s Centre for Health Protection.
Both passengers had tested positive for the virus prior to boarding their respective flights, and did not inform authorities until arriving in Hong Kong.
The increasing instances of returned travellers being diagnosed with COVID-19 has sparked discussions around the globe over who should take responsibility for ongoing spread of the disease, as travel restrictions ease.
Just weeks ago, a Qatar Airways flight from Doha to Athens made headlines, when 12 passengers on board the flight tested positive for COVID-19, which resulted in Greece temporarily banning Qatar from flying into Athens.
Recently, the International Air Transport Association recommended that steps such as temperature checks at the airport and encouraging the wearing of face masks should be utilised to protect passengers and crew from infection onboard flights.
However, there have been some flaws with this tactic, as shown in the case of Hong Kong.
While screening measures have already been introduced at many airports, such as most recently at LAX, these measures are often voluntary, and not necessarily an accurate way to determine whether someone has the virus or not.
Most notably, even if someone were to register with a fever, or even test positive for COVID-19 prior to travelling, currently, airlines have no power to turn them away.
This has airlines calling on governments to regulate the travel of those with confirmed cases of COVID-19, as the aviation sector desperately tries to grow demand for domestic and international travel.
Korean Air Lines recently said in a statement: “Taking temperatures and having passengers wear masks on flights are steps we can do to ensure the virus doesn’t spread.
“For measures to be put in place to ensure infected passengers don’t fly, it has to be done by the authorities and it’s not something an airline like us can do on our own.”
IATA last week outlined recommendations for COVID-19 testing, saying it ideally would be done before arriving at the airport and within 24 hours of travel, or at least prior to departure.
Further, governments would need to mutually recognise test results, IATA said, and ultimately decide how to proceed.
In an online conference hosted by the Hong Kong Tourism Board on Wednesday, IATA director general Alexandre de Juniac reiterated that there needs to be much more collaboration between governments, and that it doesn’t work for countries to impose and lift border restrictions unilaterally.