Countries should consider recommending that passengers wear masks on long-haul flights to counteract the latest omicron subvariant of Covid-19 given its rapid spread in the United States, World Health Organization officials said.
In Europe, the XBB.1.5 subvariant is being discovered in small but growing numbers, officials at the WHO Regional Office for Europe said at a news conference.
Passengers should be advised to wear masks in high-risk environments like long-haul flights, said Dr. Catherine Smallwood, WHO Emergency Manager for Europe, adding: “This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread Covid-19 transmission”, reports RTE.
XBB.1.5 — the most highly transmissible Omicron subvariant to date — accounted for 27.6 percent of US Covid-19 cases in the week ended Jan. 7, US health officials said.
In taking action, she said: “our opinion is that travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner”, reports RTE.
That doesn’t mean the agency recommended testing passengers from the United States at the time, she added.
XBB.1.5 is 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 discovered in October, and is itself a recombination of two other Omicron subvariants.
Concerns over XBB.1.5 fuelling a new spike in cases in the US and beyond are mounting at the same time as a surge in Covid cases in China, after the country backed away from its “zero Covid” policy last month is.
According to data reported by the WHO earlier this month, an analysis by the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention showed that Omicron substrains BA.5.2 and BF.7 are predominant in locally acquired infections.
Many scientists, including from the WHO, believe China is likely underestimating the true extent of its epidemic.
More than a dozen countries, including the United States, require travellers from China to take Covid tests.
Call on the government to introduce a mask requirement on public transport
The Labor Party’s health spokesman has urged the government to consider introducing mask requirements in crowded areas and on public transport.
Duncan Smith said the measures could be implemented for the months of January and February as the healthcare system is in such a state of crisis.
Mr Smith said the Chief Medical Officer tweeted about wearing masks over Christmas so there was advice, but said they were not strong enough and not backed by the Minister for Health as was the case during Covid.
“We all need to improve on mask wearing, my own mask wearing has slipped. I think it’s a very small ask. I don’t think it’s a big imposition, it’s something people could do easily,” he said, reports RTE.
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