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WHO backs mask-wearing on long flights amid U.S. spread of Omicron variant

Travellers wearing masks

The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Tuesday advised that countries should consider recommending passengers wear masks on long haul flights.

WHO said this is to counter the latest Omicron sub variant of COVID-19 given its rapid spread in the U.S.

In a news conference in Europe, WHO officials said the XBB.1.5 sub variant is being detected in small but growing numbers.

WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood, said passengers should be recommended to wear masks in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights.

“This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 transmission,” adding that the current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalisation and death.

U.S. health officials however said that the XBB.1.5 sub-variant, the most transmissible Omicron sub-variant that has been detected so far accounted for 27.6% of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. for the week ending January 7.

However, experts said it remains unclear if XBB.1.5 will cause its own wave of infections around the world.

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 the domestic surveillance systems, and wastewater monitoring systems around points of entry such as airports.

Smallwood noted that “Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing,” saying it is crucial to not be “blindsided” by an exclusive focus on one particular geographic area.

She said if travel measures are considered “our opinion is that travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.”

She however added that it did not mean the agency recommends the testing of passengers coming from the United States at this stage.

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 the domestic surveillance systems.

Other examples include wastewater monitoring systems that can look at wastewater around points of entry such as airports.

XBB.1.5 is yet another descendant of Omicron, the most contagious variant of the virus causing COVID-19 that is now globally dominant.

It is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October, which is itself a recombinant of two other Omicron sub-variants. (Reuters/NAN)

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