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


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

WHO said this was 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.’’

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 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. for the week ending Jan. 7.

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

She said the current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalisation and death.

Smallwoood noted that “countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing” saying it was 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 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 not diverts 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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