On Friday, November 26th, the Government of the Netherlands put restrictions into place for flights from South Africa and seven other southern African nations which took effect at midnight on Saturday morning. However, two KLM flights from South Africa (one from Cape Town and another from Johannesburg) were already in the air on their way to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport.
This led to a dilemma about what to do with the passengers of the flights. The planes were allowed to land as scheduled but passengers were held on board for several hours to prepare for special processing.
All passengers were held separately and were required to have a COVID test. The results were not what people wanted to see. Sixty-one passengers tested positive and 539 tested negative for COVID. (The webpage is in Dutch from the agency that did the testing)
That makes for a great headline and confirms the worst fears of many people. Does this mean that the new Omicron variant is running wild? Did it spread from person to person while on the plane?
I’m not one for making “quick-takes” about breaking news. Mainly because they’re often wrong with assumptions being made on inaccurate information. However, this story has so many variables that it’s easy to get lost in what we think instead of focusing on what we know and don’t know.
There’s one question that needs to be answered.
How Did So Many COVID Positive Passengers Get On The Plane?
Based on reporting from Reuters, all passengers had to be tested before boarding.
Rules on the company’s website said passengers had to present a negative COVID-19 “rapid antigen” test result taken 24 hours before departure but were not required to show proof of vaccination.
I found a link to a page on the KLM website for South Africa which says:
All customers (aged 13 and over) travelling to the Netherlands from high-risk countries, which includes South Africa will be required to:
- Present a negative COVID-19 Rapid Antigen test result taken less than 24 hours before boarding the flight to the Netherlands
If this is true, it means one or more of these had to have happened:
- Passengers tested negative on an antigen test within 24 hours but positive upon landing.
- Passengers submitted fraudulent test results.
- The labs doing the tests did something wrong (improper testing procedure or outright fraud when processing tests)
If it was either of the last two, there’s nothing new about people not doing the right thing (like when these scammers were caught reusing nasal swabs.)
Before making assumptions, I haven’t read anything official from the government or the airline about the antigen testing requirement. The Netherlands website says that no testing is required for fully-vaccinated passengers coming from outside the EU/Schengen Area. The previous government webpage mentioning rapid testing is no longer online.
If passengers only had to show proof of vaccination and not a negative test result, that would make a big difference.
The difference in COVID tests
It’s been almost two years and still, there’s much confusion about the different types of COVID tests out there. The problem is people throw around terms interchangeably while there are important differences between the types of tests.
There are two categories of COVID tests to look for active infections – molecular tests and antigen tests. Here’s a great article if you want to read about the differences in the tests and which one is more accurate.
Antigen tests give fast results and require little to no equipment. Using a nasal swab, you collect a sample and in about 15 minutes you get a result (one line is negative and two lines positive, similar to a pregnancy test.)
These tests are inexpensive and easy to do. Results are fast and the tests are suitable for determining if you have COVID or another respiratory condition (cold, flu, etc.) if you’re experiencing symptoms.
Molecular tests check for the RNA from the COVID virus. They also go by the name NAAT (nucleic acid amplification test.) The most well-known of these tests is the RT-PCR (PCR for short) which stands for reverse transcription polymerase chain reaction. This is the primary, but not the only type of molecular test available. The main thing these tests have in common is that they amplify (or reproduce) the number of viral particles from a sample, allowing them to identify a much lower amount of virus than an antigen test. They need to be processed with laboratory equipment and take longer to get a result.
Molecular tests are more likely to find infections that are pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic. They can also show a positive result for a long time after an active infection, even if the patient no longer has symptoms.
This could be why so many passengers tested positive upon landing. The Dutch government did PCR tests on all passengers, while they only received antigen tests (if any) in South Africa.
What Does This Mean?
This is the big question. We’ve already seen countries close borders to people who have visited any country in southern Africa, the origin of the Omicron variant. It’s not even known yet if the passengers on the KLM planes had the variant or were infected with an older COVID strain.
Until we know more about how transmissible, infectious, the severity of symptoms and if current vaccines work against Omicron, countries are going to be cautious. To be realistic, it’s already out of the area with Belgium, Britain, Germany and Italy all reporting new cases.
There are many more things we don’t know about the KLM flights that will determine what happens next. Did everyone on the planes get antigen tests before the flight? Were the infected passengers vaccinated? Was this the new variant or an older one? How many of the passengers who tested positive end up having symptoms? Will any of the other passengers on the plane test positive in the next 3-5 days?
It’s way too easy to let your confirmation bias get in the way of looking at the information. All we know at the moment is that 61 people tested positive. Without knowing the how or the why it’s impossible to make decisions on what to do next. So for the short term, governments are doing what they can to make it appear they are doing anything.
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