Covid variant to ‘watch out for’ in 2023 as US cases soar

Omicron sub-variant discussed by infectious disease expert

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An expert has warned that the new XBB1.5 Covid subvariant could be of concern in 2023 after case numbers in the US doubled in one week. According to experts, XBB1.5 is just one out of a swarm of emerging subvariants of the Omicron strain that officials are keeping an eye on. In fact, the subvariant has now become responsible for more than 40 percent of Covid cases in the US, data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed.

US-based epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who shared the information on Twitter, argues that the new variant is more immune evasive and better at infecting than other Omicron subvariants.

He wrote: “Wow. XBB.1.5 more than doubled across the United States in 1 week, now – 40 percent, out-competing all variants.”

The scientist added: “We’ve not seen such rapid growth of a variant since Omicron BA.1 a year ago. Total US XBB1.5 last week = 18 percent of cases. Northeast now ~75 percent XBB.1.5. Perhaps CDC and media will finally take note.”

But while data for the US is appearing to cause alarm, XBB1.5 is threatening to spread across the world. For instance, India reported its first case of the Omicron subvariant last week, according to Timesnow. British epidemiologist Tim Spector also warned on Twitter that “XBB could be the new variant to watch out for 2023”.

Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told Reuters: “Ironically, probably the worst variant that the world is facing right now is actually XBB.”

However, experts say that XBB.1.5 is most likely to have originated in the US, with the first case detected in the New York area in October back in October. Scientists at Columbia University have also warned that the rise of subvariants including the XBB family could “result in a surge of breakthrough infections as well as re-infections”.

Dr Stephen Griffin, an Associate Professor at the University of Leeds, previously told that the emerging subvariants could be a cause for concern for the UK too.

He explained: “New omicron subvariants are increasingly dominant and they are even more capable of evading antibody responses than even BA.4/5 were over the summer. This is important because many of us will not have had a vaccine for some time now, meaning that antibody levels in the blood have naturally declined.

“The booster programme targeted at the elderly and clinically vulnerable has sadly faltered for the age groups under 70 in particular – only around half of 50-59-year-olds have taken up this offer. 

“The Government ought not to be surprised by this; if you spend most of the time saying a disease is nothing to worry about, it follows that people will be less inclined to understand the need for booster vaccinations.”

The fact that a large number of especially younger adults and children remain unprotected by vaccines, the offer has been withdrawn from children turning 5 since September, and the MHRA-approved vaccines for under 5s remain to be reviewed, speaks to the UK yet again being well off the pace in terms of vaccine coverage. The level of reinfections and prevalence amongst younger people is shocking as a result.”

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But the US’s top infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci, has warned that updated Covid booster shots targetting the original variant of the coronavirus as well as BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants may not be “optimal” for targeting the newly emerging XBB1.5. But he did say that the jabs would provide some protection.

XBB is a combination of two different Omicron BA.2 subvariants. While experts are still early on in their study of XBB1.5, it appears to have a higher level of transmissibility.

According to Yunlong Cao, a biochemist at Peking University, the subvariant “appears faster and more sustained than any of the variants since Omicron’s first wave[BA.1] last January”.

Dr Fauc has said previously said that XBB is highly evasive of the antibodies that people develop from prior infections or vaccinations, which form the body’s first line of defence against the virus.

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