The World Health Organization Wednesday issued a recommendation whereby countries should foster the wearing of facemasks on long-haul flights amid a growing spread of the XBB.1.5 subvariant of the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron strain.
The newer version of Covid-19 has been reported to be circulating at an unprecedented pace, particularly in the United States, where it accounted for 27.6% of new cases last week and now over 40%, according to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Some countries have scrapped their mask mandates but continue to encourage their use, while others such as Brazil have reinstated them at all stages of air travel.
Passengers should be advised to wear masks in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights, said the WHO's senior emergency officer for Europe, Catherine Smallwood. This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread Covid-19 transmission, she said while it remains unclear whether XBB.1.5, now the globally dominant and most contagious variant of the virus, will cause its own wave of global infections. At any rate, current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death, according to the experts.
Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing, Smallwood said, adding if action was considered, travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.
The new version is an offshoot of XBB, first detected in October, itself a recombinant of two other Omicron subvariants, but it has been reported to be substantially less severe than earlier variants such as Delta.
Masks are already being recommended for people flying into the European Union from China, where Covid-19 surged after the Asian country lifted its controversial zero-Covid policy. Omicron subvariants BA.5.2 and BF.7 were the most common in China. Many countries have imposed strong restrictions on Chinese travelers in recent weeks.
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said airlines should take non-pharmaceutical measures to reduce the spread of the virus on flights from China, including mask-wearing and pre-flight tests, while random testing may also be carried out on a sample of arriving passengers in addition to the enhanced cleaning and disinfection of aircraft serving these routes. Last week, the EU's Integrated Political Crisis Response group (IPCR) also recommended all passengers on flights to and from China should wear face masks.