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A health protocol to reopen the African skies?

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This article was originally written in French and published on Jeune Afrique.

Restricting flights to a few airports can help Africa develop an appropriate health protocol, says Jean-Marc Bourreau, CPCS’s Director of Aviation.

Still reeling from the shock, the aviation sector has suffered a historic blow from the coronavirus crisis. In Africa alone, international passenger traffic has plummeted by 95 per cent in the second trimester.

Flights in Africa have never been this empty since the late 1950s.

In the wake of an unprecedented global health emergency, most countries have closed their airspace to commercial flights.

However, developments in the past few weeks suggest that the key to economic recovery lies on getting commercial flights back in the air. The problem is that travellers, fearing COVID-19 risks, are not keen to step into what they perceive as high-altitude hotspots.

Additionally, countries themselves hesitate in opening their borders. The risk of exposing their population to imported cases would incur unacceptable health, social, economic and political costs.

Limiting the risk to an “acceptable level” 

How can we reopen the African skies without making flights a health risk? One might think:

  • A vaccine becomes available for all travellers
  • Proven treatments and preventive healthcare become widely accessible

None of these scenarios seem realistic in the following months – or years.   

A third option, which enjoys some support in regards to domestic flights, consists of physically protecting passengers and crew. Its main drawback is that it does not account for potential COVID carriers and, as such, cannot prevent imported cases from entering.

The final option would be to implement a testing protocol, before and during the trip, that limits transmission risks for passengers and crew to an acceptable level. This would also protect the country of destination.

A combination of virological and serological tests 

Such a testing protocol already exists. It was developed by a multidisciplinary team to which the author of this article is part of. The team also fields Simon Wain-Hobson of the Institut Pasteur, Aaron Bensimon, CEO and Scientific Director of Genomic Vision, Airbus executive Patrick Devaux and Emmanuel Rutman, a project engineering specialist. 

The health protocol combines virological and serological tests. Virological tests, commonly known as PCR tests, detect the presence of the virus from the second week of infection onwards. Despite their accuracy, there is a high percentage of false negatives (30-35%). In addition, viral positivity decreases with time.

A service without restrictions 

Although this protocol imposes certain constraints due to stricter planning of the trip, it allows commercial flights and tourism to return to pre-COVID levels. In particular, it allows for an unrestricted on-board service with no limit on the number of usable seats.

Africa is especially compatible with this protocol as even small volumes of traffic exert a considerable economic impact. International air transport is also concentrated at a small number of airports, which makes its implementation less cumbersome.

Africa could be the first continent to reopen its airspace and embark on the road to economic recovery – in a way that is responsible to its population.

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