Role of ICAO in not encouraging rapid decrease in international spread of Covid-19 by air travel
In the Covid-19 international virus crisis, the airline industry has been they key means by which the virus has spread rapidly, to almost every country. But the industry has been primarily concerned with its own economic interests. There is much more the aviation industry could have done, earlier on, to limit the spread of the disease. The Canadian news website, Ricochet, says only by the 9th March did ICAO’s council finally adopted a declaration affirming “the urgent need to reduce the public health risk of the spread of COVID-19 by air transport,” but the damage was already done. Instead of limiting flights as much as possible from the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, ICAO lobbied to delay the adoption of health measures that could harm air traffic. They stressed the role of governments in directing the health checks etc on travellers, avoiding discouraging air travel by those who were likely to have been in contact with infected people. Doing that would have reduced passengers, and thus income and profits for the sector. On Feb 4th ICAO warned governments about imposing “additional health measures that may significantly impede international [air] traffic.” By then the first cases of infection had already been declared two to three weeks earlier in travellers who came from China, most of them by plane.
Air travel has rapidly spread COVID-19, but industry has been reluctant to limit flights
Private economic interests prioritized, even at the cost of public health
Analysis by André Noël (Ricochet)
MARCH 14, 2020
In this 21st century, airplanes are the main vectors of global epidemics. But during the COVID-19 crisis, the airline industry has been primarily concerned with its economic interests. This article has been translated and adapted from a piece originally published by Ricochet’s French edition.
“Global air traffic networks play a key role in the global importation of emerging infectious diseases”
The role of aviation in the spread of epidemics in the 21st century has been recognised by the scientific community for many years. Yet instead of limiting flights as much as possible from the start of the COVID-19 epidemic, the International Civil Aviation Organisation, an advocacy agency of the United Nations that is headquartered in Montreal, lobbied to delay the adoption of health measures that could harm air traffic.
In a Feb. 4 statement on COVID-19, the International Civil Aviation Organisation warned governments about imposing “additional health measures that may significantly impede international [air] traffic.” [See below** ]. By then the first cases of infection had already been declared two to three weeks earlier in travellers who came from China, most of them by plane.
The organization was wrong to urge governments not to limit air traffic as the virus began to spread outside of China, according to a French expert.
“Frankly, it was not the right message to have,” says Alain Barrat, director of research at the French National Center for Scientific Research and co-author of an article entitled “The role of the airline transportation network in the prediction and predictability of global epidemics,” published in 2006 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“Global air traffic networks play a key role in the global importation of emerging infectious diseases,” notes a group of of researchers that includes individuals from the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute & Initiative in a Feb. 25 article on the current COVID-19 epidemic. (Authored by more than 30 people, the article is available online prior to approval for publication.)
In recent years, airplanes have been involved in many cases of transmission of contagious diseases such as severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), influenza, smallpox and measles, reports Alexandra Mangili of the Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
As winter ends, COVID-19 is already well established in many countries and is now spreading within communities, said Barrat during a Skype interview with Ricochet from Marseille, France, on March 12. But at the start of winter, planes were a very important carrier of the virus and the aviation industry could not ignore it. The International Air Transport Association, which represents most of the world’s major airlines and is also based in Montreal, participated in a study by Barrat and his colleagues on the role of airplanes in the spread of infectious diseases.
“When the Iranian government became aware of the epidemic in China, it took no steps to limit trade and air travel.”
Epidemics have regularly erupted over the centuries, notably the plague in the Middle Ages, but they spread more slowly, said Barrat. With airplanes, the flow and the speed are much greater: “We have numbers of people who are displaced every day over great distances,” he said. Today, epidemics, like SARS or COVID-19, “are spreading along the aviation network,” which “completely changes the dynamics.”
The researchers at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute & Initiative and their co-authors also report in their article that the coronavirus quickly spread outside of China via the air network. Wealthier people travel by plane, and the study notes that countries reporting COVID-19 cases are mainly developed countries, such as Italy and South Korea.
Iran, a less affluent country also affected, is a special case, but here too aviation is at issue, suggests Dr. Amir Khadir, a specialist in medical microbiology at Pierre-LeGardeur Hospital in the suburbs of Montreal. COVID-19 first appeared in the holy city of Qom, and hundreds of Chinese students of Islamic studies regularly make roundtrip flights there from their hometowns. “There is a lot of travel and trade between Iran and China,” said Dr. Khadir, who is of Iranian origin. “When the Iranian government became aware of the epidemic in China, it took no steps to limit trade and air travel.”
“Governments are machines that respond slowly to a crisis”
And it seems no government could count on the International Civil Aviation Organization to get it right. On another issue — that of the climate crisis — this United Nations agency has been regularly accused of not defending the public interest and instead serving as a lobby for the powerful aviation industry.
The fact that planes spread epidemics very quickly has a major impact on public health networks, as it leaves governments little time to take action, said Barrat.
“Governments are machines that respond slowly to a crisis,” he said. “With regard to an epidemic, we know that we are going to have exponential growth, which at first seems slow and which becomes very fast. And when you start having a lot of cases … we have to take the measures that are being taken, but it would have been better if we had done it before.”
Barrat is not surprised that the International Civil Aviation Organization, which has a mandate to support civil aviation, did not want rapid and radical measures that could have hampered air traffic at the start of the epidemic.
“It is obvious that the first concern when the number of cases [of infection] is still low is to say ‘well, we must not kill the economy too much.’ But then we realize that it might have been nice if we had been a little more reactive before.” If they act in time, authorities can limit the spread of the virus and ultimately avoid taking catastrophic measures that hurt all aspects of the economy. In hindsight, the call by the International Civil Aviation Organization not to hinder air traffic at the start of the epidemic was not the right message.
On March 9, the International Civil Aviation Organization’s council finally adopted a declaration affirming “the urgent need to reduce the public health risk of the spread of COVID-19 by air transport,” but the damage was already done. The statement also said that organization is concerned “about the economic impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on air transport and civil aviation.”
[** See https://www.who.int/news-room/detail/30-01-2020-statement-on-the-second-meeting-of-the-international-health-regulations-(2005)-emergency-committee-regarding-the-outbreak-of-novel-coronavirus-(2019-ncov) The WHO Statement on the second meeting of the International Health Regulations (2005) Emergency Committee regarding the outbreak of novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) That says: “Under Article 43 of the IHR, States Parties implementing additional health measures that significantly interfere with international traffic (refusal of entry or departure of international travellers, baggage, cargo, containers, conveyances, goods, and the like, or their delay, for more than 24 hours) are obliged to send to WHO the public health rationale and justification within 48 hours of their implementation. WHO will review the justification and may request countries to reconsider their measures. WHO is required to share with other States Parties the information about measures and the justification received. ” ]
Here is an ICAO press release about Covid-19 on 2nd February 2020, that illustrates the points made above:
ICAO press release
In light of the increasing number of cancelled and rerouted flights now arising due to Coronavirus fears, as well as the implementation of additional travel measures for passengers, ICAO wishes to encourage all governments and airlines to keep informed of the latest travel and health recommendations being issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) and follow these recommendations.
Updated WHO advice and recommendations, in addition to related bulletins issued by ICAO, the CDC, and other regional and international aviation organizations, are all freely accessible to any officials or the general public through the ICAO CAPSCA Coronavirus web page.
ICAO would further remind national governments of their obligation under the International Health Regulations (IHR) to inform the WHO of their public health rationales and justifications when implementing additional health measures that may significantly interfere with international traffic, [see link ] within 48 hours of their implementation. We support its calls to all countries not to impose restrictions inconsistent with the International Health Regulations, and for more rapid collaboration between the public and private sectors to develop the diagnostics, medicines, and vaccines we need to bring this outbreak under control.
WHO guidance material is based on expert and reliable information, and informed by the need to maintain a sustainable and supportive environment in the face of associated health and travel risks. Exceeding its recommendations without having conducted an appropriate risk assessment could lead to unnecessary and negative impacts, especially for the many vulnerable or isolated populations which rely so importantly on their global aviation connections.
States’ implementation of the Standards and Recommended Practices (SARPs) that relate to the preparedness and management of public health emergencies is essential. These are contained in:
– Annex 6 to the Chicago Convention – regarding universal precaution kits;
– Annex 9 – regarding compliance with the International Health Regulations and facilities required for public health measures at airports;
– Annex 11 – regarding contingency plans in the event of potential disruption of services;
– Annex 14 – regarding aerodrome emergency plan for public health emergencies;
– Annex 15 – regarding requirements for flight crew advisories; and
– PANS-ATM – regarding procedures for reporting suspected communicable diseases.
Resources for Editors
A specialized agency of the United Nations, ICAO was created in 1944 to promote the safe and orderly development of international civil aviation throughout the world. It sets standards and regulations necessary for aviation safety, security, efficiency, capacity and environmental protection, amongst many other priorities. The Organization serves as the forum for cooperation in all fields of civil aviation among its 193 Member States.
The ICAO Aviation Safety website
and ICAO press release on 14th February, that says:
Montréal, 14 February 2020 – The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has conveyed new advice to its Member States urging them to review and implement applicable civil aviation standards and recommended practices relevant to communicable disease response.
It also reminded national governments of the publicly and globally accessible COVID-19 online travel and health advisories which have been issued relevant to the outbreak by ICAO, the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and other aviation and international organizations.
In its most recent State letter, the UN aviation agency urges States to implement relevant provisions of Annex 9–Facilitation to the Chicago Convention, to act on formalizing their membership in ICAO’s Collaborative Arrangement for the Prevention and Management of Public Health Events in Civil Aviation (CAPSCA), to effectively establish a National Air Transport Facilitation Committee, and to clarify the roles and responsibilities of public health and civil aviation authorities during outbreaks, in order to support the continuous, safe, and orderly operation of global air services.
….. and it continues at
‘and see the various announcements etc from CAPSCA – on managing public health and aviation at