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As new Omicron subvariant spreads, WHO backs mask wearing on long flights

Countries should consider recommending passengers wear masks on long-haul flights to counter the latest Omicron subvariant given its rapid spread in the United States, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said on Tuesday.

In Europe, the XBB.1.5 subvariant of the virus that causes COVID-19 is being detected in small but growing numbers, WHO/Europe officials said at a press briefing.

Passengers should be advised to wear masks in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights, said WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, adding: “This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 19 transmissions.”

XBB.1.5 — the most transmissible Omicron subvariant that has been detected so far — accounted for 27.6 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the United States for the week ending Jan. 7, US health officials have said.

It remains unclear if XBB. 1.5 will cause its own wave of infections around the world. Current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalization and death, experts say.

A passenger wearing a face mask prepares to board a plane at the Brussels Airport in Zaventem, Belgium, in this June 2020 photo. (Francisco Seco/The Associated Press)

“Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing,” Smallwood said, noting it was crucial not to focus exclusively on one particular geographic area.

If action is considered, he said, “our opinion is that travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.”

That does not mean the agency recommended testing for passengers coming from the United States at this stage, he said.

Measures that can be taken include genomic surveillance, and targeting passengers arriving from other countries as long as it does not divert resources away from domestic surveillance systems. Others include wastewater monitoring systems around points of entry, such as airports.

Concerns variant will lead to jump in cases

XBB.1.5 is yet another descendant of Omicron, the most contagious — and now globally dominant — variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. It is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October, which is itself a recombinant of two other Omicron subvariants.


Concerns about XBB.1.5 fuelling a fresh space of cases in Canada, the United States and beyond are on the rise at the same time as a surge of COVID cases in China, after the country pivoted away from its signature “zero COVID” policy last month.

According to data reported by WHO earlier this month, an analysis by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed a predominance of Omicron sublineages BA.5.2 and BF.7 among locally acquired infections.

Many scientists — including from WHO — believe China is likely under-reporting the true extent of its outbreak.

More than a dozen countries — including Canada and the United States — are demanding COVID tests from travelers from China.