New Zealand’s Bizarre New Air Travel Coronavirus Cases

Filed Under: Travel

New Zealand reported 25 new coronavirus cases today, which is the highest number of daily cases the country has seen since early April. But there’s something about these cases that’s quite interesting in the context of pre-travel testing, quarantining, and more.

18 COVID-19 cases directly linked to one flight

New Zealand has by all accounts been one of the most successful countries in the world when it comes to managing the coronavirus pandemic. There’s disagreement about the cost at which this has been achieved, but purely in terms of the number of cases, the country has done exceptionally well.

New Zealand has more or less closed its borders, with the exception of some essential travelers. But even those travelers have needed to get tested and quarantine.

A total of 235 people who are part of a fishing crew arrived in New Zealand this week, which was supposed to be the first of two such flights. The flight operated from Moscow to Christchurch via Singapore, and the passengers stayed on the plane in Singapore.

18 of the travelers ended up testing positive for coronavirus upon arrival in New Zealand. That’s obviously high no matter what (that represents nearly 8% of passengers), but there’s something that makes this particularly concerning:

  • The travelers were required to self-isolate for 14 days prior to travel
  • The travelers were tested for coronavirus prior to travel
  • Two people were even taken off the flight for having tested positive, and they’re not accounted for in the 18 people who tested positive on arrival

What should we make of this situation?

We’ve seen airlines and the travel industry at large heavily campaign for the concept of testing in lieu of quarantine, and based on most of the data we’ve seen so far, that seems reasonable.

Suffice to say that this situation is concerning, where travelers were not only supposed to self-quarantine, but were also allegedly tested prior to travel.

This raises quite a few questions:

  • Did many of the travelers not actually follow the self-quarantine requirement prior to travel?
  • Even if they didn’t quarantine prior to travel, what happened that caused 18 people to test negative before travel, and then positive after travel, less than 24 hours later? The incubation period could easily explain this for maybe one or two people, but not for 18 people…
  • Was everyone actually tested as claimed, and were the tests working as they were supposed to?

Bottom line

New Zealand has been one of the strictest countries when it comes to managing coronavirus. Despite the requirement for a pre-travel quarantine and pre-travel testing, 18 travelers on a single flight to New Zealand still tested positive for coronavirus, representing nearly 8% of the passengers.

For the sake of the airline industry on the whole, one would hope that there was some fluke or oversight here (that the quarantine wasn’t followed, and that testing in Russia was faulty), rather than this representing a bigger overall issue.

What do you make of this New Zealand situation?

  1. 1) they didn’t follow quarantine
    2) they weren’t properly tested (testing technique)
    3) high false negative rate anyways with the test
    4) asymptomatic infection and persistent positive test even weeks after the acute infection

    (They somehow let me graduate med school…)

  2. Hope than New Zealand opens its boarders to people that live on sailboats that are in the area of cyclones . Currently their houses are at risk of sinking.

  3. Gut feeling? Russian government purposefully faked the negative test results in order to foster spread of the virus in enemy countries. It’s really that simple.

  4. It’s amazing there are still people who believe the tests are valid. How naive do you have to be?

  5. The answer to all your questions is “The flight operated from Moscow”.

    Interesting that the supposedly draconian NZ border closing would allow hundreds of fishermen? from Russia as essential workers.

  6. This simply shows that New Zealand will remain isolated for the next 20 years if they follow this strategy of elimination and forced-quarantines, because even the vaccines being created won’t be 100% (more around 50%).

    They are free to remain afraid of this virus while the rest of the world moves on.

  7. A flight from Moscow with essential fisherman. Okay.
    It’s almost like COVID is a virus and is nearly impossible to contain. Weird.

  8. Could be any number of reasons. These very unreliable tests, which also produce false negatives. Did they really self quarantine? In other words they didn’t even run out to the store for toilet paper?

    Again, this proves how moronic this entire “health crisis” has become. There will never, ever be adequate resources to impose quarantines on a significant scale. And people are people. Let;s face it if on Day 12 they feel fine (which most people that test for COVID 19 will) they will likely run down to the corner store for a roll of toilet paper. Sorry that’s just human nature. We don’t need “Karen” lectures.

    Instead of all this foolishness we should focus on quarantining those most at risk-elderly people with health issues. And they are probably a much easier segment of the population to “shelter in place.” An 85 year old in a nursing home isn’t going to be out on a fishing excursion. Also focus on developing effective treatments, which our medical professionals are in fact doing. How do you think a 74 year old fat man that eats horribly, doesn’t sleep enough (instead tweets) and has massive stress recovers in a few days.

    And before anyone gives a story of someone that was young and healthy died from COVID, which does happen. These situations are rare, particularly now with existing treatments. It’s not up to government to make everyone 100% safe 100% of the time. Only in either a children’s storybook or some Utopian fantasy.

  9. the answer is very easy. As the CDC says the tests can’t show if anyone is infected. they only find parts of the RNA of a possible corona virus even if it isn’t existing anymore. in short words: the test are worth nothing. Good to see that there is a class action now against the inventors of those tests.

  10. @George N Romey
    “we should focus on quarantining those most at risk-elderly people with health issues”

    Yes, let’s imprison all the old people, so they spend what’s left of their lives locked in a tiny room.

    The US: where the answer is always incarceration, shooting or bombing.

  11. Did the two who tested negative and were pulled off the flight quarantine together with the people who tested positive on arrival? If so, that could be the source.

  12. This story seems to confirm that the only way countries can ensure that Covid effectively stays out of their country is for incoming travelers to have to stay for 14 days at a strictly supervised facility like a hotel, where they can’t leave during that duration. Testing is never going to catch everyone with Covid, and self-isolation quarantine policies are absolutely worthless.

    According to the American Hotel and Lodging Association, there are 54,200 plus hotel properties in the U.S., with over 5 million guest rooms. Therefore, we (U.S.) had the capacity to enact a quarantine policy for incoming international travelers back in January, February, and March similar to New Zealand which would have drastically reduced the number of Covid cases and enabled us to more effectively control the outbreak. The fact we didn’t establish a similar quarantine policy to New Zealand is our fault.

  13. @JBR – Yes, following the policy of an island at the edge of the world with a population smaller than the Boston metro area and less dense than Iowa seems like a good fit for the USA. Also, NZ announced their measures in mid-March. But time machines are great.

  14. @Jromi – We have over 5 million hotel rooms available in our country which could have been utilized for quarantine for incoming international travelers. Hotels have struggled for 7 months to fill up their rooms, and many are on the brink of bankruptcy. Instead, they could have been utilized as quarantine facilities for incoming international travelers and stayed full this whole time. As far as the time machine comment, we did in fact have the benefit of time to know how bad this could be, considering it hit China first. When they (Chinese) shut down Hubei province in late January, that should have been all the warning we needed to prepare for a full-scale response, including quarantining incoming travelers from countries with established community spread (like China).

  15. People lie. People cheat. People think the rules don’t apply to them. People don’t believe in science or care.

    Sound familiar?

    As long as we allow a-holes to cheat, lie and spread this infection (along with the same political/behavioral infections we see all around us every day), expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.

    People who violate public health mandates should be thrown in jail, period. Let them ride out their own little pandemic there in their cells.

  16. Our government here in NZ is so pathetic. There is way more Covid than they pretend, its just impossible to get a test. And honestly people are tired of it. Are we just going to remain closed down for the rest of our lives? Please liberate NZ…All this stupidity over a flu…

  17. new zealand is RACIST xenophobic country why would any one ever want to visit a county that will close it boarders to keep people out is a horrible place and should be boycotted by the rest of the world

  18. This looks like the airlines are be careless.

    It should be noted that you *don’t* test positive immediately after infection (or at least that’s my understanding). It usually takes about 48h for the test to turn positive (which makes sense; the virus takes a bit of time to spread; just saying). Thus, even if the spread happens on the airplane, a passenger can’t get a positive immediately upon arrival.

    It’s also worth noting that 235 pax on a single flight is… a lot? SQ B777-300ER seats only 264 pax. If we suppose NZ to be extremely strict, they would at least demand empty middle seats, right? In that case, did a A380 fly these people or something?

    Finally, it should be noted that COVID-19 spread on airplane is famously rarely, with only 1 case being clearly proven, and that’s before mask requirement onboard. So for 18 people to get infected at once on a flight, there has to be something really wrong in planning that flight (again, 235 pax on a single flight during covid time is a more than a bit nostalgic, no?). Either that or most (if not all) of them were already infected but somehow got through.

  19. This flight was one of two charter flights to bring Russian and Ukrainian sailors to crew our fishing fleet, it happens every year. It does show that people can’t be trusted to self quarantine I think, and that the quarantine and testing at the border is the best way to keep the virus out. Greg, ironically here in NZ we aren’t afraid of the virus, and have moved on. We carry on life as if it was 2019, no mandatory face masks, or social distancing or lock downs, you remember how that was? Don’t get angry at NZ because we did the right thing early.

  20. Maybe NZ’s tests showed false positive? I have heard about a case of 140 tourists in Egypt – all tested positive on arrival, got re-tested 2 days later and only 8 were still positive. PCR tests are very sensitive and quite faulty (that’s how they work – by detecting even minimal amount of virus)

  21. @ JBR – It’s a pretty ridiculous counterfactual for lots of reasons, not least of which nowhere in the Western Hemisphere was there any political will on anyone’s part to do something that drastic even in March, let alone Feb (when WHO decried travel bans) or Jan . Stateside, forced mass quarantines would almost certainly have been tossed within 24 hours as a result of court challenges, and given what mask enforcement has looked like, are you really going to keep millions of people holed up in hotel rooms? Were you going to have federal law enforcement patrolling the halls of the Days Inn at JFK? Assuming all international arrivals were quarantined, you’d have almost 5 million people in hotel rooms at 2019 air travel rates after 14 days (yes I know you could have multiple people sharing rooms). And that doesn’t account for land border crossings. Likewise, hotels aren’t located proportionally to where international arrivals happen. Like, you aren’t going to bus people from O’Hare to Omaha when Chicago runs out of hotel space.

  22. @Jromi, if we wanted to utilize those hotels rooms more effectively, they should be used to isolate and quarantine our own population in a test and trace regime. You have the ability to interrupt the home spread disease vector for hundreds of thousands of people. The University of Illinois already does this and they have probably the most effective disease control policies in the country. But again, we lack the political will to fight the disease.

  23. Lets just assume everyone got tests and on both ends the tests were 100% accurate. A negative test doesn’t mean you haven’t been exposed to the virus. We can see that with the White House outbreak. It takes 2 to 6 days after exposure for your body to produce enough viral load to test positive. Being that there were two already testing positive before they left, it can already be assumed that the self-isolation was not a sufficient quarantine and likely others had been exposed to those two.

  24. Probably a few too many vodka farewell family parties a few days before departure after they were all tested. Then combine that with a 10.500 mile flight couped up inside without face masks on, plus the time pre departure and on arrival in Christchurch – you end up with 18 new cases.

    How many of those airline surveys took into account a 10,500 flight?
    Were the fishing crew completely self isolated for the entire 14 days under strict supervision or was it the “self quarantine at home with 14 relatives and farewell parties” that fishermen are well known to have before going out on long voyages.

  25. @Ian, “We carry on life as if it was 2019”

    Except for those people in the international tourism industry. They’re back to carrying on life as if it was 1719.

  26. @ Jromi – New Zealand has made their quarantine policy work and has avoided oversaturating their hotels because they are only allowing in New Zealand citizens and essential non-citizen workers like the Russian fishermen mentioned in this article. We could have followed the same policy (and banned non-citizens with few exceptions) once it was established a country had community spread. It would have been quite a task having to provide security for the hotels, but New Zealand and Australia have managed to do it with their quarantine policies, and they are western democracies like ours.

  27. We clearly do not manage Covid. It has managed us. We have had to adjust to the “new normal” of testing, quarantine, determinations if your an essential or not. All Orwellian ideas. If you are not essential to this pandemic, which I argue is a biological nightmare of non natural occurring origin, then what if we have some more significant issue.

    Not a .01% death rate but more like 40 or 50% mortality? What then of the non essentials, will they be denied food, medical care, it is not a far step. NZ did what it thought was right in the full shutdown but that works with the size of its population and economy. Not with the rest of the developed world.

  28. @The nice Paul

    So, instead of keeping just the most vulnerable sequestered, we should keep everyone locked up at home? If people are willing to risk exposure to the virus, they should be allowed to go about their lives. Life is full of risks. Bedwetters are welcome to stay at home for the next two years. Hundreds of thousands of people die from influenza every year. Why do we not have lockdowns to prevent those deaths? Oh, the humanity! The leftist mindset: if everyone can’t have something nice, no one should.

  29. The Grauniad article you linked says that the crews arrived “days earlier”, and that the positive results came from tests while they were in quarantine.
    So, some of them were no doubt not isolating as claimed, and there was no enforcement. But 18 pax probably means it spread on the flight, which tells you how air travel is doing.
    Yeah, the airlines and Boeing can set up tests to “prove” safety, but the easiest test is to show us the pax on say 20 long-haul flights on the same route, with load factors over .80. How many of them got sick in the next two weeks compared to the local population, and what do those sick cases look like on a seating chart?

    They haven’t done anything like that, of course, instead paying to use a jet as a particle tester that will give “good” results.

  30. I agree with Ben. This is very strange. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, has done a wonderful job of handling the Coronavirus. Her leadership prevented unnecessary loss of lives, and she is to be commended.

    On the other hand, it is a curious thing that Russia would send fishermen that end up being infected. Maybe a bit of jealousy from Putin?

    Of course, it’s a “given” that the journey is LONG. The plane carries a large amount of passengers, and many, many sit close to one another. Still, 18 positive individuals! That’s ironic. I tend to disbelieve it has anything to do with faulty tests, but perhaps a set up. It’s quite unusual for this to happen with New Zealand. Customs is so strict that you are not allowed to enter the country with dirty shoes, and they DO ask you to bend your knee and raise your foot so they can see if your shoes have mud in the grooves of the soles. They want to keep NZ free of bacteria and outside other unfavorable things. You will pay a fee, too, for the purpose of keeping the environment clean.

    All in all, this fishermen debacle has a fishy stink to me.

  31. @KR, “On the other hand, it is a curious thing that Russia would send fishermen that end up being infected. Maybe a bit of jealousy from Putin?”

    Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

  32. This story reminds me of the 57 sailors from Argentina who quarantined for 14 days before they left for the sea and all tested negative. Then, 35 days later while at sea and no contact with land, a good number of them exhibited covid-19 symptoms and after getting back to port, tested positive. Only contact that ship had were getting supplies from Ushuaia from time to time.

  33. It’s not bizarre or a mystery. If you want zero cases you must have zero interaction with the outside world. Do your own fishing NZ. Or don’t. But don’t cry when you import labor to do jobs you don’t want to do.

    Same goes for freight. So long as you have flights landing or ships docking there will always be risk.

    Sorta like the US states that wanted to ban interstate travel. Except for the MAGA hat wearing truck drivers delivering your food right? They’re always welcome.

    Whatever Covid-19 reality you may want to believe, there’s one truth nobody seems to want to accept, it’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Not even after the election in the US (since some want to believe that places like Peru tanked their economy as a way to get rid of Trump).

    Every person, every nation needs to assume the current status quo is likely to continue. So if you want zero risk you need to be totally self sufficient with a sizeable buffer between you or your citizens and the outside world. Or accept the risk of infection and move forward.

    Or we can keep arguing about masks and other half measures.

    I already know the answer. Arguing and half measures. Why did I bother to ask?

  34. @jojo~ New Zealand will be fortunate indeed never to have you visit! That country has done an exemplatory job in eliminating community transmission of the virus, and the only cases are from (extremely restricted) incoming passengers. Their quarantine regimen fixes this. The NZ people wildly approve of the governments handling of the pandemic, re-electing the government last week with a majority not seen in over 50 years!
    All of this is out of reach in the US of course, and you’ll just have to continue to suffer the consequences. Maybe the new Biden Administration will help, but you can resign yourselves to being the amongst the last countries in the world to conquer this pandemic. You just don’t have what it takes.

  35. @Ryan

    Note to self… Advocate for cheap, reliable rapid testing, an immediate opening of international borders and transparency of actual risk factors.

    People and nations can be excused for almost any reaction to an unknown threat. But at some point we need realistic ways to move forward. Zero infections is unrealistic without complete isolation.

  36. Jojo

    Replace “New Zealand” with “USA” and you would be right.

    But you aren’t right for NZ.

    USA has closed its borders so according to you that must also means it’s a racist and xenophobic country as well.

  37. Any traveller who breaches home or hotel quarantine, or lies about were they have been…..loses their passport for 10years!
    Jailing people is an expensive deterrent.

  38. The answer is……. RUSSIA….. I’m sure they followed all the testing rules.. hello” Land of the Long White Cloud”

  39. Unfortunately people lie all the time.
    I work in a outpatient surgery center and after they get a surgery date we ask all these questions like: Have you been traveling outside the country? Yes I was 2 weeks in Mexico, just came back.
    Well in that case we have to postpone the surgery .
    All of a sudden they say I have not been ouside the country. Sorry but there are so many people who do not follow the rules and do not stay home after their Covid test.

  40. @The nice Paul

    So, instead of sequestering the elderly and most vulnerable, we should imprison everyone? I guess if everyone can’t have nice things, no one should have nice things. That policy worked well for the Soviet Union.

  41. Here is a possible explanation:

    NZ may have a more sensitive threshold to call a PCR test result a positive, compared to Russia. It’s a quantitative PCR, not a qualitative yes-or-no test. We just never get to see the number, as the NYT article nicely explains.
    (-: @UK – they let me graduate from grad school two decades ago and I’ve been supervising PCR experiments ever since )

    And now, about that supposedly Covid-free NZ:

    Two pax from NZ, on two separate occasions, have tested positive in just one destination country (Malaysia), and that’s before the latest NZ outbreak. I wonder how many other cases of undetected community spread there have been in the land of “living like it’s 2019.” Given that NZ actually opposes and has tried to legally ban antibody surveys of its population (which, unlike PCR tests, would paint an unbiased picture of Covid infections present and past) –

    – there might have been quite a few more.

  42. Since i think i am smart.

    I would like to see where were these 18 seated? Were they all close to each other?
    Are they related?
    Did they come to the airport together?

    The flight crew? Which crew member served all 18 of them?

    I think there are too many possibilities and the data the article has is limited.

    I like the one answer.

    WTF was NZ thinking?

  43. They were coming from Moscow. I am in Moscow now and I can tell you with 100% certainty that they did NOT self-isolate, no matter what they themselves say about that. And they were likely either not tested or tested with some terrible 60% accuracy test. That’s just how it goes in Russia, there’s zero respect for any kind of anti-coronavirus policy, even the ones that are officially implemented here. Those cases aren’t because of spread on board the aircraft (they wouldn’t show up so quickly anyway) – all those people were already sick when they go on the plane.

  44. With a very small population New Zealand is similar to some cities around the world. It is a greater feat to spare 2,000,000 people’s lives in the US. Think, people, think. Duh!

  45. @Greg, you write as if the typical Kiwi is unhappy with their country’s approach to the virus. In fact, the evidence is that they are very happy with their nation’s successful approach. No need for you to be critical. @Brian, same message to you.

  46. To all those who are bashing New Zealand for their quarantine/Covid eradication policies, I would like to point out that their Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s Labour Party just won by a landslide victory in their general election on October 17, getting 49% of the vote versus 27% for the main opposition, the National Party. Therefore, their quarantine/Covid eradication policies must be popular with the people of New Zealand. The opinions of armchair MAGA pseudo-political analysts halfway around the world don’t really matter in comparison to the people in New Zealand who have spoken with their votes.

  47. Let’s not forget that there are many examples where groups had positive tests that could not be reproduced. Very recent Examples are Mein Schiff 6 or the Porsche Racing Team After Le Mans.

  48. Well people wouldn’t catch covid on the plane ride and suddenly test positive. You don’t show positive that quickly. So basically that leaves sketchy testing in Russia which is no surprise at all if you are familiar with Russia. Raises the question what test did they use? Did they use a full PCR test or did they use those rapid tests which can be incredibly unreliable. I mean seriously look at what happened at the white house and the number of people infected there. Those quick tests aren’t trustworthy. Still with that many people testing positive I can’t imagine they all quarantined. Something is definitely going on. Were they all one group living together in a communal setting? Can’t trust Russia at all.

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