Updated: June 25, 2020 10:05:41 am
A Seattle-based company Teague has come up with a device called an air shield that can fit on to existing air vents inside an airplane cabin, thereby reducing the risk of COVID-19 spreading inflight by regulating the air flows.
How does COVID-19 spread on an airplane?
Regarding transmission of the virus on an airplane, the World Health Organization (WHO) states: “Transmission of infection may occur between passengers who are seated in the same area of an aircraft, usually as a result of the infected individual coughing or sneezing or by touch… Highly contagious conditions, such as influenza, are more likely to be spread to other passengers in situations where the aircraft ventilation system is not operating.”
The international organisation says ventilation on airplanes provides a total change of air 20-30 times per hour, and most modern aircraft have recirculation systems that can recycle up to 50 per cent of the cabin air.
The International Air Travel Association (IATA) maintains that while the reasons for the low rates of in-flight transmission are unknown, some of the possible reasons could be the lack of face-to-face contact and the physical barriers provided by seat backs along with the characteristics of airflow.
What is the relevance of airflow in aiding the spread of infection?
The airflow patterns aiding the spread of disease are not just restricted to airplanes. In a paper published in April, Chinese researchers talked about a specific incident that took place at a restaurant in Guangzhou, China, in which a COVID-19 positive person passed on the infection to nine other diners. In this paper, researchers suspected that large respiratory droplets suspended in the air could have infected the diners aided by the airflow of the air conditioner.
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They noted that aerosols tend to follow the airflow and, therefore, the direction of airflow and ventilation can play a significant role in the transmission dynamics of the infection, inside closed spaces such as onboard airplanes or air-conditioned restaurants that are poorly ventilated.
So, how can passengers protect themselves on board?
IATA recommends that passengers wear a mask for the entire duration of their journey, from the time they enter the airport to when they exit their destination airport. It also maintains that the risk of contracting the infection is lower on an airplane than at a shopping centre or an office because the cabin air on an airplane is changed frequently.
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“For most modern aircraft types, the air supplied to the passenger cabin is either 100 per cent fresh or is a mixture of fresh and re-circulated air that is filtered through HEPA filters of the same efficacy (99.97 per cent or better) in removing viruses as those used in surgical operating rooms,” IATA states.
What is an air shield?
Teague maintains on its website that rather than distance, the central issue on airplanes is the airflow, which plays a significant role in the spread of disease on board. “Based on our existing knowledge, there are two transmission processes for the virus, either as an airborne particulate or from viral particles that have settled on surfaces. Currently, airlines are only able to fully control cleanliness and the sanitization of a cabin before the boarding process,” it says on its website.
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Essentially, the air shield is a single 3D-printed nozzle that fits on top existing gaspers in airplanes and creates invisible germ isolation curtains around each passenger. The nozzle utilises existing cabin air systems to virtually separate each passenger by a curtain of air.
The shape and speed of air created by the air shield deflect particles emitted from one passenger downward and away from the noses and mouths of other passengers.
Apart from airplanes, the air shield may also be used in other social spaces such as gyms, workplaces, retail outlets and restaurants.
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