Covid: WHO says passengers on long-haul flights should return to wearing masks as XBB variant spreads

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has suggested that countries should advise passengers to wear masks on long-haul flights.

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

“This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread Covid-19 transmission,” she added.

Countries also need to “look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing” and implement travel measures “in a non-discriminatory manner”.

The recommendation comes as the new Omicron XBB1.5 subvariant of Covid has spread rapidly in the US and China has seen an apparent surge in cases following the reversal of its stringent zero-Covid policy.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the XBB1.5 subvariant represented an estimated 27.5 per cent cases in the US in the week ending 7 January and is taking over in the country’s northeastern parts.

The US’s apex disease prevention agency has estimated that it has soared to roughly three-quarters of cases in New England and New York, reported the Wall Street Journal.

The XBB1.5 subvariant is also rapidly rising in Europe, WHO officials said during a press briefing.

The agency pointed out that there was “no immediate threat” from Covid in China even as it demanded more information from the country.

The comments come as Chinese embassies stopped issuing new visas to South Korean and Japanese travellers in an apparent retaliation for Covid measures recently imposed by them on travellers from China.

So far, at least 10 countries across Europe, North America and Asia have imposed restrictions recently, amid officials expressing concern about the lack of information on the Chinese outbreak and the potential for new variants to emerge.

The new XBB1.5 Covid strain, a descendant of the highly transmissible Omicron variant, has sparked fresh health concerns worldwide. It is a subvariant of XBB, which is a strain of Omicron BA.2 variant.

XBB.1.5 has been detected in at least 74 countries and 43 US states, according to, which uses data from the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID).

“There needs to be heightened surveillance for detection and isolation of new cases,” Dr K Srinath Reddy, an Indian physician and president of the Public Heath Foundation of India, told The Independent earlier in December, while warning against super spreader events.

“Since Covid-19 tests yield some false negatives, we must also publicise clinical criteria for self isolation of suspected cases even when they test negative. People must be advised to wear face masks in crowded places, especially in indoor locations,” he said.

“Crowded events should be avoided, to prevent a super-spreader effect. We must keep our healthcare systems ready for a possible surge in cases.”

According to UK-based health experts, up to 9,000 people are dying from Covid a day in China, where infections have dramatically risen following the country’s end to strict isolation rules.

Explaining the unravelling situation in China, American public health scientist Eric Feigl-Ding, who is the chief of the Covid Task Force at the New England Complex Systems Institute, tells The Independent that much of China’s population has not gained immunity through vaccinations or infections, leading to a surge.

Any strain will cause havoc in China, he said. “Because China had a policy of zero-Covid. But now that they have opened the doors, it is bound to cause disaster. But for the rest of the world, it depends on the variant.”

“China is the last country in the world where there has been a high number of uninfected people. While most countries had opened to some degree and had a wave,” he said.

“Also, the new variants are very evasive” against vaccines, he said, adding that China’s primary vaccines – Sinovac and Sinopharm – are “notoriously [the] weakest of all the major vaccines in the last two years in terms of antibodies level”.

He also slammed China’s boosting rates, especially among the elderly, saying “there are about 130 million elderly people in China who do not have a third shot or less”.

“They also do not have Omicron-adapted vaccines that Europe is using,” he said. “It is a combination of these things that is leading to the rapid spread of Covid in the country.”

The surge has prompted the UK and US governments to require all passengers arriving in their respective countries from China from 5 January to return a negative Covid result before travelling. China’s neighbour India has also ordered random testing of international passengers arriving at its airports.

India will not be at the same risk as China as it has already had a wave that has impacted individual immunity, according to Dr Feigl-Ding.

“Other than Wuhan, and those in other pockets, China never had an exposure wave.”

“The other thing, I would be worried about is exports. China exports a lot. And it could affect a lot of production, so I think there will be an economic fallout, if not Covid fallout,” he explained.

“Tracing new variants is the key. And we have to do a lot of genomic sequencing. Because not all Covid variants are alike.”

“Because if you were infected with Covid one and half or two years ago, your protection against Covid is much weaker now because immunity wanes over a period of time,” he said.

“Two, the virus learns to be more evasive. You know, early on because nobody was infected, the virus spread as fast as it can. But now, the virus spreads by being more evasive.”

“If you think about how the original Omicron spread in South Africa, nobody had heard about it in November 2021. And by late November, Omicron exploded. By December and January, it took over the world.”

“Therefore, you have to monitor these through genomic sequencing,” he said, as he warned against more variants. “XBB strain is really bad. It could cause another wave in New York city, which it is. It is not just Covid, but which Covid strain is causing the havoc.”