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I am flying this week from Munich to London, and Bavaria just got the first contaminated person, who now has the Coronavirus 2019-nCoV after interacting with Chinese colleague. Two cases of the novel coronavirus have been confirmed in the UK, and the number of cases in Germany has grown. Moreover, the Coronavirus has now been declared a global health emergency by WHO.

I got a bunch of emails from SOS International and such, on what methodology I should follow to mitigate the risk of getting infected, but none of them addresses the following (hopefully extreme) hypothetical scenario:

I go to my seat, and I suspect the person next to me (or in neighboring seats) has the Coronavirus related symptoms (high fever, short breath, etc.). How should I react, without being too paranoid?

Go in the back to secretly communicate that to the flight attendant, and request a seat change?


Update (Feb 2): I am now in Munich airport, and both pharmacies (before and after security check) have no typical plastic masks (sold-out). They only have some conical-sized ones. The airport does not provide masks (asked in the Information). I advise you to buy a typical plastic mask before coming to the airport.

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    If you are flying from a region that has a very small number of cases it is extremely unlikely that the person near you has Coronavirus, even if they are showing symptoms that you associate with the illness. I'm not saying never do anything, but definitely don't panic. – DJClayworth Jan 28 at 16:07
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    Maybe a transit flight @DJClayworth would challenge your comment. But in my specific case, you are right. – gsamaras Jan 28 at 16:37
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    Passengers arriving from highly infected areas with symptoms are being screened on arrival, and so would not be allowed on connecting flights. – DJClayworth Jan 28 at 16:41
  • Can you cancel your trip? Or work remotely via video conference ? – Criggie Jan 29 at 2:21
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    I flew from NY to Beijing during the H1N1 outbreak. Four days later I was in Xi'an when Chinese health authorities collected my wife and me. We were told we had been within three rows of someone else on the flight who had been showing symptoms of illness. Three rows forward and backward, 12 people per row implies they had had to track down 72 people dispersed around China. I don't know how much success they had, but neither of us got sick (but I got massive caffeine withdrawal in the quarantine) and the "passenger 0" had a cold, not h1n1. Changing seats would not have helped. – kojiro Jan 30 at 1:54
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+500

A cabin crewmember here.

This is different from airline to another, and country to another, but I can safely assume there are a lot of similarities when it comes to this, as most of the airlines get the instructions from local Civil Aviation Authorities and local health ministries, both authorities get the information from higher global organizations.

The airline I work for supplied its fleet recently with a contagious disease kit, which shall be used by the cabin crew once there are signs of an infected passenger. This kit includes masks to be distributed once needed, a disinfectant liquid (the same as in hospitals) to clean surfaces around the sick passenger, gloves, etc. Also, my airline allowed its crewmembers to wear masks if they wish to on flights from/to certain destinations.

As I said, not sure if the same is being followed by other airlines. Regardless of that, you should inform the cabin crew right away, they are in this with you, they will know what to do. These days our mailboxes are being filled with health information and updates regarding this, and because we are exposed more than the average person, we really care about this.

Finally, what you should worry about is the infected people during the incubation period with no symptoms at all (this has been confirmed), they are as contagious with no way of knowing that. People with fever (a common symptom after the virus incubation period) will not be allowed to board. Therefore, it's advised that you follow basic prevention measures, such as washing your hands, avoiding touching your eyes, nose or mouth, cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze, wear a mask (N-95 mask), etc.

This seems like a virus masterpiece, only the coming few days will let us know how serious this is.

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    As of yesterday when I was reading up, we don't actually know how infectious (if at all) people in the incubation period are. It's therefore definitely a good idea to take precautions. – CarlF Jan 28 at 16:32
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    Also be careful not to start a panic. If you say loudly "that person has corona virus" then people around you are going to start panicing and demanding to be let off the flight, even if there is zero chance the person actually has the disease. – DJClayworth Jan 28 at 16:44
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    That's why I said "secretly" in my post @DJClayworth ;) Please remain calm is going to be flight philosophy. :) – gsamaras Jan 28 at 19:03
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    @cj wrong, it was announced yesterday or the day before that the virus is contagious during the incubation period. – Nean Der Thal Jan 29 at 0:31
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    The most important thing you can do as a regular person to prevent the spread of diseases is regularly washing your hands, especially before you handle food (for others or your own). – Philipp Jan 29 at 13:21
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You are already being too paranoid for right now . Though this may change if Wuhan Corona virus becomes far more widespread.

Apart from the very small probability of coming into contact with a Wuhan Coronavirus carrier unless you are in/around Wuhan as mentioned in another answer you need to consider the following:

300,000 to 650,000 people die from Flu each year. Would you be at all considering raising the alarm to cabin crew if you suspected the person next to you had flu? All you would be doing is creating hysteria in possibly the worst place for it to happen - an aircraft cabin.

Right now (end Jan 2020) Wuhan CoronaVirus is much less deadly than SARS and MERS were and is far less likely to kill you personally in Munich or London than Flu would*.

  • Assumming you are a fit adult of young to middle age - its also vanishingly unlikely that you will be killed by Flu.

Instead of speculating around unlikely (at this point in time) scenarios start educating yourselves and others about what the actual risks are.

So based on this site

Wuhan Coronavirus may spread more easily than flu (exactly how much is still uncertain), will kill more easily than flu, but not SARS or MERS.

Right now there are are 2 major worries about CoronaVirus - the fact that it may be contagious whilst the patient shows no symptoms, and that it seems to spread relatively easily for a droplet-borne virus - BUT at time of writing - neither of these things have been confirmed with statistical rigour.

In short - if you are flying you way more have more chance of sitting next to someone with flu than sitting next to someone suffering from Wuhan Coronavirus. This last statement is a WAG and lacks statistical rigour - but hopefully it makes the point.

Bookmark the site above and then start worrying if the number of cases reaches the 100,000 mark.

Bear in mind the media exists (in part) to sell advertising via manipulation of your emotions - particularly fear.
Right now there is nothing to suggest that WCV is going to be much much worse than SARS or MERS were. Not to trivialise those deaths but to put into context their minimal global impact to the average human.

One tip I use - change the headline to something more prosaic - at time of writing WuhanCorona Virus has killed 132 people since December 2019. In 2018 an average of 3056 people died in car crashes in the US. Source

Would you be worrying as much if you saw the headline 132 die from Virus, vs 132 die from Driving?

One last thought : The human brain is appalling at judging relative risk - always bear this in mind.

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    Paranoia is justifiable in this case. – abdul Jan 29 at 22:11
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    People all around the world drive cars, while only a small population got affected by the virus as of now, the comparison makes no sense currently. Wait until the virus is widespread then crunch the numbers again and let's see. Or, you calculate the car accidents in a population that matches the virus affected population.. – Nean Der Thal Jan 30 at 0:49
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    @abdul No, it is not. – Roberto Jan 30 at 9:41
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    213 dead right now. Just about 180 people died to this virus in the last week. While it is "only" 9000 people if we extrapolate over a year, that's a far different number than 132 since December 2019. I agree with that OP should not cause panic, especially not on a plane, because OP was probably fine. In fact, individual travelers within continents other than Asia are probably indeed more likely to die in a car crash on the way to the airport than to contact the virus (which is of astronamically low chance). On a grand scale, though, this virus is worrying. – Belle Jan 31 at 9:09
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    UPDATE: the Wuhan coronavirus has become far more widespread. Your first sentence may need to change. – user253751 Mar 11 at 13:02
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According to this website:

Like other coronaviruses – such as the common cold – the virus is spread via droplets when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also be spread when someone touches a contaminated surface such as a door handle.

I'm not a doctor but my mom is a biologist who works for the State Laboratory in São Paulo doing analysis in blood, feces, and other fluids for research of diseases like dengue and tuberculosis.

According to her, the best method to prevent an infection is to always sanitize your hands, never to touch your eyes or mouth, and to avoid direct contact with people such as by shaking hands, talking too close to them, and so on. A mask would prevent any saliva from getting in contact with your mouth and a pair of sanitary glasses would do the same for your eyes, but those are quite uncomfortable to use for long periods. Gloves are only valid if you frequently discard them because if you touch a contaminated surface using gloves and scratch your eye, the contamination will happen anyway.

When we had the swine flu in Brazil the government and private sector installed a lot of hand sanitizer dispensers in schools, supermarkets — almost everywhere. And people started carrying a small bottle of hand sanitizer in their pockets or purses, something that still happens today.

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Go in the back to secretly communicate that to the flight attendant, and request a seat change?

If a passenger told a flight attendant that they suspected another passenger had a deadly contagious disease, the flight crew, if they believed the risk was real, they would immediately take steps to protect the passengers as a whole and the safety of the flight as a whole. Changing the seat of one passenger does nothing to improve the overall safety of the flight. A crew who felt the danger was real would not have attention to spare to swap the seat of one passenger who felt their personal safety was more important, though they might humor someone they thought was over-reacting by changing their seat.

If the aircraft were empty enough (rare these highly optimized days) they might create a buffer zone of empty seats around the affected passenger. If there were only a few empty seats away from the suspected carrier, priority would certainly go to the elderly, children, pregnant women, immunocompromised people, etc.

But the correct first step is definitely to discreetly notify a flight attendant of your concerns.

After that, the best you can do to protect yourself is hand sanitizer, turn to the wall, wear a mask, pray to the higher power of your choice...

(Note: Yes, I'm mostly serious about the prayer, as it can be useful to help people of faith keep calm after they have taken all practical tangible steps.)

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    +1 for the rationale about praying! – CJ Dennis Jan 29 at 0:50
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    "A flight attendant would probably be too busy dealing with universal precautions", I disagree. Anything related to safety gives us the full authority to cancel whatever "service" we see fit and concentrate on the safety issue. – Nean Der Thal Jan 29 at 18:17
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    @NeanDerThal that was my point -- if a passenger told a flight attendant that they suspected another passenger had a deadly contagious disease they would immediately take steps to protect the passengers as a whole and the safety of the flight as a whole and would not have attention to spare to swap the seat of one passenger who felt their personal safety was more important. I'll edit my answer to be clearer. – arp Jan 29 at 20:24
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There is lot of misinformation going around on this; so lets break it down. First off, at the time of writing the chances that someone on a Munich-London flight has the Coronavirus are extremely remote. There are currently a dozen or so cases in Bavaria, in a population of millions.

Second, you will not be able to tell if the person has “the symptoms”, or are you going to take their temperature? If someone is coughing and sneezing, the most likely chance is that they have a common cold.

If they have fever, it is still more likely to be influenza than coronavirus.

Of course you will still want to avoid contracting any disease, especially influenza, which is also serious. The measures are kind of always the same: Wash your hands often, especially after being in public places, and don’t touch your face. Also, it is a good idea to get vaccinated against the flu (though it doesn’t help against the coronavirus).

If there is space, you may politely ask the crew to be restated; nobody enjoys sitting next to a sick person.

And if you believe the person next to you to be seriously unwell, for any reason, you should inform the crew so that they can assess if the passenger is fit to fly.

In short: You should do the same things that you always do when sitting next to a “sick” person.

Should the virus spread more widely, you should follow the advice of the official health authorities - and not stuff that you read on the internet.

Addition

The original answer made sense at the time (the cases in Munich were completely contained at that point, there was almost zero chance of meeting someone infected).

Things have changed now. If you still fly, and someone is showing symptoms there may be a fairly high chance of them being infected. In which case you should ask the flight crew, and ask to be re-seated. Consider yourself at risk, and self-quarantine for one or two weeks; if you are in a vulnerable group contact your doctor and try to get tested.

That said, if you're further away from the person, it is unlikely the virus ever gets to you before getting sucked up by the air filters.

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Besides all the fear-mongering in the media - please consider the travel-warnings of the CDC.

Just take the suggested precautions and bring your own medical face-mask to MUC terminal.

Latex gloves can also help with avoiding to touch the face accidentally (this requires training).

And if you should notice suspect it after the take-off, contact a flight attendant discretely.


In case the risk should appear too high, consider individual transport through the EuroTunnel. The ferry from Calais to Dover is less secure, because you'll be on-board while in transit, not in a car.

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  • The World Health Organization announced yesterday that Coronavirus is a global threat, so yes, I'll take these warnings of you in severe consideration. Agreed about the discretely. The EuroTunnel is an alternative I hadn't thought of - but it requires extra planning and renting a car in my case (fair trade off), thanks! – gsamaras Jan 31 at 12:46
  • Due to drop-infection, one would have to protect all mucous membranes, including the eyes - but when looking at images from South-East Asia, they do not seem to consider that. Toilets are also a risk, since feces is a major way of transmission... Sagrotan / Kodan might be useful on a travel. – user27888 Jan 31 at 13:08
  • Of course you should consider CDC travel warnings, but they are specifically about travel to China. The original question was about travel between essentially unaffected areas (at the time of writing) – averell Feb 1 at 16:33
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The correct answer is that you do nothing.

You are the one choosing to use air travel, you are the one taking the risk that you will be infected by all manner of airborne pathogens which are circulated and recycled through the pressurised cabin by the A/C and oxygen.

Personally, I have never taken a long-haul flight without contracting at least a common cold. It's just one of the perks of being in a metal tube with 300-400 other humans breathing their germs all over you.

Whether you are sitting next to someone on a flight with a virus or sitting 10 rows back from them, you are exposed to the same level of risk.

So just sit in your seat, stop worrying about what other people are doing, and stop thinking you can diagnose someone's symptoms just by looking at them. You can't, and even if you could it doesn't matter where you're sat in the airplane, you'll be infected anyway.

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    This is not true of corona viruses. They spread only by water droplets such as those expelled during a cough or sneeze. It's possible a person could cough their way to the bathroom, but it's not true that everyone on the plane will be infected. Nor is it true there is nothing you can do. Handwashing, keeping your hands away from your mouth, and whatever minimizes getting coughed and sneezed on all help. Yes, you're far more likely to get a cold or the flu. That doesn't make this answer correct. – Kate Gregory Jan 29 at 12:21
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    Again, if someone coughs or sneezes anywhere on the plane, it will be sucked into the recirculating air system and spread evenly throughout the entire cabin. It will make no difference whether you are sat next to them or sat at the other end of the plane, you're getting exposed to the pathogen. You're right that not everyone will be infected, because immunity and infection is a bit of a crap shoot. Not because some people get directly sneezed on and some don't... Washing your hands and worrying about putting your hands in your mouth won't make any difference whatsoever to an airborne pathogen. – Geoff Griswald Jan 29 at 13:13
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    That's true -- but the corona virus is not an airborne pathogen. You are skipping a step, and freaking people out unnecessarily. – Kate Gregory Jan 29 at 13:41
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    Yup, this is neither medically nor statistically accurate given the current understanding of this virus. It's borne on droplets, so not "airborne". In addition, sitting 10 rows away will significantly reduce your risk of being infected by someone with this virus. – Dancrumb Jan 29 at 16:04
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    "I go to my seat, and I suspect the person next to me (or in neighboring seats) has the Coronavirus related symptoms (high fever, short breath, etc.). How should I react, without being too paranoid?" is the question. If you see someone with high fever and short breath on a flight, they have a cold or flu or some other airborne pathogen. Asking to move seats in that scenario achieves nothing. The Coronavirus is infectious for 2-3 weeks before any symptoms start showing, so if you're sitting next to someone with the virus on a plane, you won't even know until 2 weeks after the flight. – Geoff Griswald Jan 29 at 16:43
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The latest news is that the virus cannot be contained, it will end up spreading around the World. A significant fraction of the World's population will get infected by it. So, chances are that at its peak, the outbreak will cause massive disruption of healthcare systems, making it difficult to get adequate treatment if you happen to get very ill with the disease at that time. So, it's best to get infected with this virus as soon as possible. You should therefore not request a seat change.

But wait, surely we would want to have a lot more evidence before doing something unconventional like deliberately getting infected? But the problem is that you are in the plane and you need to act within minutes. Are you going to sit next to the passenger who you suspect of being ill with 2019-nCoV, or are you going to request a seat change? You have to act on the information that you have right now, not on information that will arise during the coming months.

The information that exists right now points to big problems in the near future. What is now undisputed is that the virus can be spread by people who don't show any symptoms, who may never become ill. So, the chance that you'll become ill with the virus later when many people get it is significant. The probability of needing treatment for pneumonia when you become ill with the virus is far greater for this virus than it is for seasonal flu, even if you are young and healthy, see here.

The fact that far more people will need treatment for the infection compared to regular flu, means that during a big outbreak healthcare resources may be more difficult to access. A vaccine could change the situation, but as pointed out here a vaccine will come too late to deal with this outbreak even if it is developed in the coming few weeks, because of the time needed to mass produce millions of dosages of the vaccine.

And it's not just the current outbreak that's poised to spread around the world that's the problem. As the virus starts to infect more and more people, going from tens of thousands, to millions, to many hundreds of millions of people, the virus will be able to undergo increasing rare chance mutations. So, if there is a probability of one in a billion per newly infected person that the virus in that particular person will end up undergoing a mutation or a mixing with some virus to become a far more deadly virus, then this has a reasonable chance of actually happening. But it may then still be the case that having an immunity to the original virus could give you some protection against the deadlier newer virus.

Now, I do understand that most people won't be convinced by my arguments. They'll be spooked into not wanting to sit next to a person they think has the virus. This allows more intelligent people to exploit these fears to get a few empty seats for themselves using this method.

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  • Do you have any references to include in your answer? Otherwise, it seems a bit too much.. – gsamaras Jan 31 at 22:12
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    There is no hard evidence for any of this claims, and the advice of intentionally getting infected is patently absurd regardless. – averell Feb 1 at 6:17
  • The author of the question has edited to “address” the question, and the train of thought is now beyond bizarre. However, as a PSA to anyone who has even the slightest doubt about it: This answer doesn’t make any sense. At all. – averell Feb 1 at 16:24
  • @averell It depends on your assumptions.Thing is that when the epidemic will start to hit Europe and the US hard, your government will not be building large hospitals like the Chinese are doing right now in a matter of days. Also, your government will not take the sort of extremely rigorous quarantine measures the Chinese government is imposing. So, if you happen to get ill around that time, you'll be in a worse situation than the Chinese people in Wuhan are in right now. – Count Iblis Feb 1 at 19:13
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I would tell the flight attendant, and they will maybe ask for health screening at landing.

Other than that, changing seat will not work, if the virus is already in the air, it might (I AM NOT A DOCTOR) infect everyone.

From what I can see on the internet about it, is that there is nothing you can do about it other than not flying; most suggestions are to use disinfectant for your hands, cough in tissues (limit spraying around stuff); most references I've seen do not agree on wearing mask or not.

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    A virus like this coronavirus cannot be “in the air”. It can only survive in water droplets. While this means it can easily be passed by coughing and sneezing to someone in close proximity, or by touching a contaminated surface, it can’t infect someone at the opposite end of the plane just from air circulation. – MJeffryes Jan 28 at 12:21
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    Modern jet aircraft have remarkably efficient air filters. The circulation tends to be top-to-bottom (there are are "drains" below the floor). Anyone more than a couple of seats away probably can't directly spread a virus to you, because their exhalations would get sucked down into the floor and particles and droplets filtered right out. – CarlF Jan 28 at 16:35

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