New year, new variant. A new COVID-19 variant has prompted the WHO to once again recommend that all air travelers wear masks on long-haul flights.
The World Health Organization (WHO) urges passengers to wear masks on long-haul flights in a press release issued on January 13, 2023.
The recommendation follows in the wake of a new highly contagious Omicron variant that has quickly spread throughout United States. In Europe, the variant has been detected in small but increasing numbers.
What is XBB.1.5?
The new omicron subvariant is known as XBB.1.5. XBB.1.5 was first detected in the United States in October 2022, where it has quickly overtaken other circulating variants.
The subvariant has evolved from XBB. It is a recombinant of two Omicron variants.
According to the WHO, from 22 October 2022 to 11 January 2023, 5,288 cases of the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant have been reported from 38 countries. Most cases of infection are from the United States of America (82.2%), the United Kingdom (8.1%) and Denmark (2.2%).
However, it is difficult to map the exact spread of the new variant, as few take the COVID-19 test.
What worries the researchers about XBB.1.5 is its ability to better evade immunity and bind more closely to cells in the body than previously observed.
Researchers have even given it the nickname “kraken” after a mythical animal from Nordic folklore.
The Kraken was a giant squid-like sea monster that attacked ships and killed sailors. According to some tales, the Kraken was so huge that its body could be mistaken for an island.
Fortunately, XBB.1.5 is not a reinterpretation of folklore’s eerie tales of the Kraken. Rather, Kraken is a desperate attempt to grab headlines.
Greater risk of infection on long-haul flights
According to the WHO, there is currently no reason to be concerned about XBB.1.5. This despite the fact that it is the most contagious variant we have encountered since the start of the pandemic in 2019.
However, the health authorities in Europe are encouraged to remain vigilant.
The WHO’s senior officer in Europe, Catherine Smallwood, advises air travelers in particular to use masks on long-haul flights, which are a particularly infectious environment.
“This should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 transmisson,” Smallwood said at the press conference on January 13, 2023, according to Reuters, adding that;
“Countries need to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing,” and if action is considered, “travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner.”
It remains unclear whether XBB.1.5 will create a new global wave of infection. Current vaccines protect against severe symptoms and hospitalization, experts say.
How do you protect yourself against corona infection on your flight?
The European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) issued recommendations for flights between China and the EU on Tuesday, January 10.
These included, among other things, mask-wearing and corona tests among travelers, as well as monitoring of waste water. Previous studies have shown that the coronavirus can be traced in waste water from infected people who have not yet shown symptoms. Hence, it is an effective way to detect virus outbreaks in early states.
WHO furthermore recommends airlines to upgrade the cleaning procedures on planes that operate long-haul routes.
The EU’s Integrated Political Crisis Response (IPCR) recommended that all passengers on flights to and from China wear masks, and that random checks should be carried out on passengers arriving from China. The IPCR consists of representatives from all of the EU’s 27 member states.
Many researchers – including those from the WHO – do not believe that China’s infection figures show the true extent of its outbreak.
More than 20 countries require COVID tests from travelers from China. These countries include Cyprus, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain and Sweden.