International COVID 19 Going on a long plane ride? WHO recommends masking up due to...

Going on a long plane ride? WHO recommends masking up due to fast-spreading ‘Kraken’ variant

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It is the most transmissible Omicron sub-variant detected three years into the pandemic.

The World Health Organization recommended on Tuesday (Jan 10) that countries consider having passengers on long-haul flights wear masks because of the swift spread of the most recent sub-variant of Covid-19, XBB.1.5 named the “Kraken” after a legendary sea monster.

XBB variants have mutations that aid in evading protective antibodies from previous infections and vaccinations, and XBB.1.5 has another mutation called F486P, which some researchers believe allows it to latch onto cells tightly. The variant comes from a branch from the Omicron family, with two Omicron versions, BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75, swapping genes, which is possible when a person is infected with the two versions at the same time.

Masking on long flights “should be a recommendation issued to passengers arriving from anywhere where there is widespread COVID-19 transmission,” said the WHO’s senior emergency officer for Europe, Dr Catherine Smallwood, at a Jan 10 press briefing.

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For the first week of the year, the XBB.1.5 sub-variant was responsible for over one quarter (27.6 per cent) of Covid cases in the US.

A professor of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Dr Andy Pekosz, said, ”Lab studies suggest that the bivalent vaccine is still effective in protecting against severe disease, though perhaps not as much against infection.

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XBB.1.5 is derived from the omicron variant BA.2, and while the current bivalent vaccine was developed for the BA.5 variant, it has been shown to generate antibodies that recognize BA.2.”

The XBB.1.5 sub-variant, first discovered last October, is behind the surge in Covid infections in the United States. It is the most transmissible Omicron sub-variant detected three years into the pandemic.

This variant is being found in a growing number of infections in Europe as well, with WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus saying on Jan 4 that XBB.1.5 has been detected in over 25 countries.

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The rise in cases in the US, as well as in China, where pandemic restrictions have been lifted, has been a cause for concern for public health officials.

Dr Smallwood urged countries “to look at the evidence base for pre-departure testing,” adding that “travel measures should be implemented in a non-discriminatory manner” should any action be considered.

She added, however, that the WHO is not recommending testing for passengers from the United States at this point.

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Whether XBB.1.5 will spark global infections and cause severe diseases are yet to be determined, with health experts saying that Covid-19 vaccines can protect people from severe symptoms, hospitalisation, and death. Initial data also shows that bivalent vaccines, already administered in Singapore, provide decent protection against XBB viruses. /TISG

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