THE WORLD Health Organization (WHO) suggested on Tuesday (01/10) 2023, countries should consider recommending that passengers wear masks on long-haul flights. The request was in view of the rapid spread of the latest Omicron COVID-19 subvariant in the United States (US).

WHO and European officials say subvariant XBB.1.5 has been detected in small numbers in Europe but is growing. These conditions require passengers to consider wearing masks in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights.

“This should be a recommendation issued for passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread transmission of COVID-19,” said WHO senior emergency officer for Europe Catherine Smallwood.

XBB.1.5 is the most infectious Omicron subvariant detected so far. The subvariant accounted for 27.6% of US COVID-19 cases for the week ending January 7. It is unclear whether XBB.1.5 will cause its own global wave of infections. Until now, health experts see that vaccines still protect against severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death.

“Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing and if action is being considered, travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner,” Smallwood said.

But, Smallwood said, the WHO does not recommend testing for passengers from the US at this stage. Steps that could be taken include genomic surveillance and targeting passengers from other countries as long as resources are not diverted from domestic surveillance systems. Another effort could be monitoring wastewater around entry points such as airports.

XBB.1.5 is another derivative of Omicron. This subvariant is a branch of XBB that was first detected in October and is a recombinant of two other Omicron subvariants.

Concerns about XBB.1.5 triggering a spate of new cases in the US and beyond continue to grow amid a spike in COVID-19 cases in China. According to data reported by WHO earlier this month, analysis by the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention showed the predominance of Omicron sublineages BA.5.2 and BF.7 among locally acquired infections. [sources/photo special]