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Countries should consider recommending that passengers wear masks on long-haul flights

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Countries should consider recommending that passengers wear masks on long-haul flights to combat the latest Omicron sub-variant of the coronavirus given its rapid spread in the US, World Health Organization (WHO) officials said today.

In Europe, the XBB.1.5 subvariant is detected in small but increasing numbers, officials from the European division of the WHO said at a press conference.

Passengers should be advised to wear masks in high-risk areas such as on long-haul flights, WHO's senior emergency official for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, said, adding that "this should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from wherever there is widespread transmission of it Covid-19».

XBB.1.5—the most contagious Omicron subvariant detected to date—accounted for 27,6% of cases Covid-19 in the U.S. for the week ending Jan. 7, U.S. health officials said.

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

"Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing," Smallwood added, noting that it's important not to focus this solely on a specific geographic area.

If measures are considered, he said, "our view is that travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner."

That doesn't mean the WHO is recommending testing for passengers coming from the US at this stage, he added.

Measures that can be taken include genomic surveillance and targeting of passengers arriving from other countries, as long as this does not divert resources from domestic surveillance systems. Other measures include sewage monitoring systems at points of entry such as airports.

Concerns about XBB.1.5 fueling a new wave of cases in the US and beyond are growing at the same time as a surge in Covid cases in China, after the country abandoned its "zero Covid" policy last month.

Many scientists - including the WHO - believe that China is likely underreporting the true extent of the epidemic in the country.

More than a dozen countries - including the US - require travelers from China to show a negative Covid test.

Source: RES-EAP