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Electrostatic spraying of disinfectant. Photo: Delta Air Lines

Boeing and researchers at the University of Arizona say their experiment with a live virus on an unoccupied airplane proves that the cleaning methods currently used by airlines are effective in destroying the virus that causes COVID-19.

Why it matters: Deep cleaning aircraft between flights is one of many tactics the airline industry is using to try to restore public confidence in flying during the pandemic. The researchers say their study proves there is virtually no risk of transmission from touching objects including armrests, tray tables, overhead bins or lavatory handles on a plane.

  • “We’re not just showing we can kill things," University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba said. "We’re showing it’s going to be safer to travel tomorrow."

For the record: The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that some 1.2 billion passengers have traveled worldwide so far in 2020, and there have been just 44 cases of COVID-19 reported that were linked to a flight journey. That’s one case for every 27 million travelers.

  • Most of those cases occurred before masks were required of passengers and crew, IATA notes.
  • Just this week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its guidance to strongly recommend face masks on airplanes and all other forms of public transportation, as well as in stations and airports.

What they did: The researchers applied MS2 — a surrogate virus deemed not harmful to humans but more difficult to kill than SARS-CoV-2 — throughout the cabin.

  • About 230 "strategic high-touch points" were targeted, including seat tray tables, armrests, seat cushions, storage bins, and inside the lavatory and galley.
  • Technicians then disinfected each area with various products and technologies using both manual wiping methods and electrostatic spraying.
  • The tests also measured how well Boeing’s ultraviolet wand and antimicrobial coatings worked.

What they found: The University of Arizona analyzed each area post-disinfection and found that all the recommended products, methods and technologies successfully destroyed the MS2 virus, and thus could be expected to kill the coronavirus too.

  • Boeing and the University of Arizona continue to test recommended cleaning methods in a lab against SARS-CoV-2 and other similar viruses to further validate their efficacy.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include more information about ongoing testing of disinfectants in the laboratory.

Go deeper

Federal watchdog finds lack of data, resources impede COVID response

A patient rests in a COVID-19 care site in a parking garage at Renown Regional Medical Center, Reno, Nevada, on Dec. 16. Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

National data on COVID-19 testing is incomplete, "critical gaps in the medical supply chain" remain, and a lack of data has stalled delivering key resources to people who need it most, a nonpartisan federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has found.

Why it matters: The findings come as the rise of more contagious variants ensures that Americans’ risk remains high, despite a three-week decline in the number of COVID infections in the U.S. A greater number of people are also dying from the coronavirus over less time.

Updated 18 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Omicron dashboard

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

  1. Health: FDA OKs antiviral drug remdesivir for non-hospitalized COVID patients — Walensky: CDC language "pivoting" on "fully vaccinated" — Pfizer and Moderna boosters overwhelmingly prevent Omicron hospitalizations, CDC finds.
  2. Vaccines: The case for Operation Warp Speed 2.0 — Teens and adults missed 37 million vaccinations during COVID — Team USA 100% vaccinated against COVID ahead of Beijing Olympics — Starbucks drops worker vaccine or test requirement after SCOTUS ruling — Kids' COVID vaccination rates are particularly low in rural America.
  3. Politics: Arizona governor sues Biden administration over COVID funds tied to mandates — Biden concedes U.S. should have done more testing — Arizona says it "will not be intimidated" by Biden on anti-mask school policies.
  4. World: American Airlines flight to London forced to turn around over mask dispute — WHO: COVID health emergency could end this year — Greece imposes vaccine mandate for people 60 and older — Austria approves COVID vaccine mandate for adults.
  5. Variant tracker
Jan 28, 2021 - Health

South Carolina reports first-known U.S. cases of South African COVID variant

A health care worker giving a patient a dose of coronavirus vaccine in an assisted living home in Sumter, S.C., on Jan. 26. Photo: Micah Green/Bloomberg via Getty Images

South Carolina health officials have reported the first-known U.S. COVID-19 cases of a fast-spreading variant discovered in South Africa, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on Thursday.

Why it matters: Though the CDC has "no evidence that infections by this variant cause more severe disease," preliminary data indicates it may spread faster and more easily than other variants.

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