Since the start of 2023, the XBB.1.5, a subvariant of Omicron, has been causing concerns among medical experts as it is spreading tremendously in the United States and the rest of the World. Although there is nothing, at least for now, to prove that the variant is more dangerous than others before it, the rate at which it is spreading is a cause for alarm.
The WHO said XBB and XBB.1.5 are accountable for up to 44.1% of COVID-19 cases in the United States in the week starting December 31. There was a 25.9% increase from the previous week, and it was detected in 28 countries.
“It’s just the latest and greatest and most infectious variant. It’s amazing to me that this virus keeps finding one more trick to make itself even more infectious, even more transmissible,” Paula Cannon, a virologist at USC, stated.
Dr Paul Simon, the chief science officer for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, said the recent hike in the number of cases is not unconnected with the holiday season.
“It’s predictable: After holidays, there’s a bump-up in cases. We saw it after Thanksgiving. We’re expecting it’ll occur over the next few weeks,” Dr Simon said.
A variant that dodges immunity
Billions of people worldwide have been vaccinated against the deadly COVID-19 virus. However, there is still a high possibility that these people could contract the new variant even if they are immune through previous infections or vaccines.
“It’s almost like a triple threat. It’s the most infectious subvariant to date. It dodges the immunity conveyed by a vaccine, booster shot or previous infection more effectively than other subvariants,” Dr Paula Cannon stated. “And as was the case with the Delta and original Omicron variants, it emerged in late fall — just in time to proliferate during the frequent indoor gatherings of the holiday season.”
Medical experts say the XBB. 1.5 subvariant spreads rapidly because it contains mutations that allow it to replicate at ease and adhere to cells.
Why a new variant or subvariant is always more dangerous
For every new variant or subvariant that emerges, infectious disease experts usually describe it as more dangerous than the previous one. It is not to scare people into taking prevention or to lure the unvaccinated population into accepting a vaccine.
In simple terms, it is only a superior variant or subvariant that can evolve from an existing one. That is why there are fears that as long as the virus continues to spread, superior variants and subvariants will emerge with time, and the existing vaccines might not be sufficient to fight them.
Dr Tim Brewer, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at UCLA, said: “The only way a new version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus is going to displace what’s already out there is that it has to have some competitive advantage. If it did not have a competitive advantage, it would not displace what’s already out there.”
With the virus spreading at an alarming rate in China, the WHO and other relevant agencies are worried that a new variant might emerge that could be deadlier than the previous ones.
Should you be scared?
With the rate at which the new subvariant is spreading, experts are worried that there could be a new wave of infections. However, there is little fear that there will be a new wave of deaths as the vaccines and natural immunity could be effective enough to prevent other ailments, hospitalisations, and even death.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove of the WHO said there could be new waves of infections around the world, “but that doesn’t have to translate into further waves of death because our countermeasures continue to work.”
The WHO said it is monitoring the XBB.1.5 subvariant closely to see if it would become more severe in the coming days and week. The body is also bothered about the spread of the virus in China, as that could lead to a more complex situation. However, medical experts alike have insisted that there is almost nothing to worry about for now regarding the new variants.
“There is no reason to think that XBB.1.5 is of any more concern than other variants that come and go in the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 mutants,” Professor Andrew Pollard, the director of the Oxford Vaccine Group, stated.