To estimate the effect of airline travel restrictions on the risk of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) importation.
We extracted passenger volume data for the entire global airline network, as well as the dates of the implementation of travel restrictions and the observation of the first case of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in each country or territory, from publicly available sources. We calculated effective distance between every airport and the city of Wuhan, China. We modelled the risk of SARS-CoV-2 importation by estimating survival probability, expressing median time of importation as a function of effective distance. We calculated the relative change in importation risk under three different hypothetical scenarios that all resulted in different passenger volumes.
We identified 28 countries with imported cases of COVID-19 as at 26 February 2020. The arrival time of the virus at these countries ranged from 39 to 80 days since identification of the first case in Wuhan. Our analysis of relative change in risk indicated that strategies of reducing global passenger volume and imposing travel restrictions at a further 10 hub airports would be equally effective in reducing the risk of importation of SARS-CoV-2; however, this reduction is very limited with a close-to-zero median relative change in risk.
The hypothetical variations in observed travel restrictions were not sufficient to prevent the global spread of SARS-CoV-2; further research should also consider travel by land and sea. Our study highlights the importance of strengthening local capacities for disease monitoring and control.