Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) are recommending that COVID-19 mitigation methods like masking on planes be reemphasized for regions like North America and Europe in response to the spread of the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, which is believed to be significantly more transmissible than previous mutations.
Catherine Smallwood, senior emergency officer for the WHO, was asked during a briefing on Tuesday whether travelers from the U.S. should be subject to travel checks due to the spread of XBB.1.5. More than 70 percent of cases in the Northeastern U.S. are currently attributed to the subvariant.
“In terms of travel measures, yes our opinion is that travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner,” Smallwood said. “That’s not to say that we recommend testing of patient of passengers coming from the U.S. at this stage.”
“Passengers should opt to wear a mask in high-risk settings such as long-haul flights. And this should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there’s widespread COVID-19 transmission,” she added, noting that this qualifier pretty much applies to the entire world at the moment.
“So we shouldn’t be targeting any particular passengers by themselves,” Smallwood said. Additionally, Smallwood said pandemic mitigation measures targeting travelers should not divert resources away from domestic measures like virus surveillance.
Hans Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, noted during the briefing that XBB.1.5 cases have been detected in Europe in “small but growing numbers.” He praised countries like Denmark, France and Germany for maintaining strong genomic surveillance of COVID-19 and urged other countries to not become complacent.
XBB.1.5 is believed to be causing 28 percent of cases in the U.S. at the moment. According to a recent report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), at the end of 2022 the same subvariant only caused about 2.5 percent of cases in European countries where variant proportions could be accurately estimated.
The ECDC has characterized the current situation in Europe when it comes to XBB.1.5. as having a “high degree of uncertainty” due to the unanswered questions regarding the subvariant’s growth rate.