Background: Airline travel has been significantly reduced during the COVID-19 pandemic due to concern for individual risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection and population-level transmission risk from importation. Routine viral testing strategies for COVID-19 may facilitate safe airline travel through reduction of individual and/or population-level risk, although the effectiveness and optimal design of these "test-and-travel" strategies remain unclear.
Methods: We developed a microsimulation of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in a cohort of airline travelers to evaluate the effectiveness of various testing strategies to reduce individual risk of infection and population-level risk of transmission. We evaluated five testing strategies in asymptomatic passengers: i) anterior nasal polymerase chain reaction (PCR) within 3 days of departure; ii) PCR within 3 days of departure and PCR 5 days after arrival; iii) rapid antigen test on the day of travel (assuming 90% of the sensitivity of PCR during active infection); iv) rapid antigen test on the day of travel and PCR 5 days after arrival; and v) PCR within 3 days of arrival alone. The travel period was defined as three days prior to the day of travel and two weeks following the day of travel, and we assumed passengers followed guidance on mask wearing during this period. The primary study outcome was cumulative number of infectious days in the cohort over the travel period (population-level transmission risk); the secondary outcome was the proportion of infectious persons detected on the day of travel (individual-level risk of infection). Sensitivity analyses were conducted.
Findings: Assuming a community SARS-CoV-2 incidence of 50 daily infections, we estimated that in a cohort of 100,000 airline travelers followed over the travel period, there would be a total of 2,796 (95% UI: 2,031, 4,336) infectious days with 229 (95% UI: 170, 336) actively infectious passengers on the day of travel. The pre-travel PCR test (within 3 days prior to departure) reduced the number of infectious days by 35% (95% UI: 27, 42) and identified 88% (95% UI: 76, 94) of the actively infectious travelers on the day of flight; the addition of PCR 5 days after arrival reduced the number of infectious days by 79% (95% UI: 71, 84). The rapid antigen test on the day of travel reduced the number of infectious days by 32% (95% UI: 25, 39) and identified 87% (95% UI: 81, 92) of the actively infectious travelers; the addition of PCR 5 days after arrival reduced the number of infectious days by 70% (95% UI: 65, 75). The post-travel PCR test alone (within 3 days of landing) reduced the number of infectious days by 42% (95% UI: 31, 51). The ratio of true positives to false positives varied with the incidence of infection. The overall study conclusions were robust in sensitivity analysis.
Interpretation: Routine asymptomatic testing for COVID-19 prior to travel can be an effective strategy to reduce individual risk of COVID-19 infection during travel, although post-travel testing with abbreviated quarantine is likely needed to reduce population-level transmission due to importation of infection when traveling from a high to low incidence setting.