Passengers on long-haul flights should be advised to wear masks and it’s not unreasonable for Europe to adopt travel restrictions as COVID-19 cases surge in China and the US, World Health Organization officials said.
“A threat could come from a new variant of concern anywhere, anytime,” Hans Kluge, the WHO’s regional director for Europe, said at a briefing in Copenhagen.
Kluge urged European countries to step up their monitoring, saying the health agency needs detailed and regular information to navigate the pandemic in its fourth year.
The number of genetic sequences submitted to the WHO from Europe has dropped to 90,000 in the last five weeks of 2022, compared to 1.2 million in the first five weeks of the year.
China also needs to supply information, Kluge said. The official death toll since the country abruptly shifted from its Covid Zero approach in early December remains less than 40, despite reports of overwhelmed crematoriums and nursing homes, prompting widespread skepticism of official estimates.
China’s definition for Covid deaths is “very narrow and doesn’t necessarily meet WHO standards,” Catherine Smallwood, a senior emergency officer, said in the presentation.
A panel of experts is currently studying whether the XBB.1.5 strain should be called a variant of concern, according to Smallwood. Cases of the subvariant are being picked up in small but growing numbers in Europe, she said.
China’s Covid surge isn’t expected to significantly impact the spread of the disease in Europe, Kluge said. Countries that introduce travel restrictions and other measures should make sure they’re proportionate and non-discriminatory, he added.