New COVID Variant XBB 1.5: Scientists have watched for weeks as a number of Omicron Descendents compete for the dominance of Covid-19 transmission in America. The BQs – BQ.1 & BQ.1.1 — seem to be gaining an advantage over all others to claim a slight edge.
This has led to a steady rise in hospitalizations and cases that didn’t seem to reach the heights of the BA.5 wave this summer. It was definitely nothing like the Omicron-related tsunami of illness a year ago.
However, on Friday, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Covid-19 variant dashboard showed a new dark horse that could quickly sweep the field: XBB.1.5.
New COVID Variant XBB 1.5
According to the CDC, XBB.1.5 is responsible for more than twice the Covid-19 share each week over the last four weeks. It has risen from about 4% up to 41% of all new infections in December. According to the CDC, XBB.1.5 causes 75% of all new cases in the Northeast.
Pavitra Roychoudhury is the director of Covid-19 sequencing in the University of Washington School of Medicine’s Virology Lab. She stated that “for a few months now we haven’t witnessed a variant that has taken off at such speed.”
What is XBB.1.5?
It is XBB.1.5, a contagious variant that was spawned from two different BA.2 variations. It is closely related to the XBB Variant which was responsible for a COVID surge in Singapore.
“It’s basically just two of the earlier subtypes or two variants,” Dr. Allison Arwady, Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner, Tuesday.
Which is the highest XBB.1.5 right now?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have shown that the XBB.1.5 variant has risen to more than 40% in the U.S. within the past two months. However, in the Midwest, the numbers are lower with XBB.1.5 accounting for only 6% of the cases.
According to epidemiologists and virologists, this Omicron sublineage could drive a new surge in Covid-19 cases in the US. However, it is not clear how large it will be or if it could bring more people to the hospital.
Experts point out that XBB.1.5 has been detected in the United States, despite recent concerns about a new Covid-19 threat from China’s continuing surge. According to GISAID (a global effort to track and catalog variants of coronavirus), it was first discovered in New York and Connecticut in October.
Trevor Bedford, a professor in computational biology at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center, Seattle, stated that XBB.1.5’s growth rate is similar to its distant cousin BA.5.
Bedford has set its effective reproductive number, which is the expected number of new infections caused by each person infected, at approximately 1.6. This is roughly 40% more than the next closest competitor.
Bedford sent an email saying that he expected it to increase circulation over the next few weeks. He pointed out that this increase might not be reflected in the case of numbers as more people test at home. This means that their cases will not be counted unless the person seeks medical attention and has a lab test done to confirm their results. He wrote that he would consider hospitalizations in vulnerable age groups (such as seniors) as a better indicator of the wave.
Are XBB.1.5 and XBB.1.5 making people sicker?
Experts are speculating about whether the variant could pose additional concerns during the weeks that follow holiday gatherings. COVID hospitalizations have already been on the rise in the U.S.
Arwady stated that the variant is “clearly less infectious” than the other variants. This means it “is spreading more easily and out-competing other variants.”
Andrew Pekosz is a Johns Hopkins University virologist. explained to CNBC that the XBB.1.5 gene has an additional mutation that allows it to bind more effectively with cells.
Pekosz stated that the virus must bind tightly with cells in order to get in more efficiently. This could make it more effective in infecting people.
Arwady stated that while it is not known where exactly the variant came from, it has not been linked to any more serious infections.
She said that there is an increase in older Northeast residents being hospitalized. However, based on what I know and what people are saying, this seems to be due to the fact that there has been an overall surge in cases. But no, I haven’t seen any evidence that this sub-variant is making people sicker. We’ll find out more as we go along.”
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The number of COVID-19 hospitalizations is rising in the US (United States) despite the fact that hospitalizations for respiratory disease and flu continue to decline. One concern is the ineffectiveness of some COVID treatment options due to recent strains.
Arwady stated that as the virus continues to evolve, we have observed that all monoclonal antibodies, or clinical monoclonal antibodies, are inactive against these subvariants. “And the monoclonal antibodies are these IV injections that people with severe immunocompromised will often use to take people who have had an organ transplant.
The vaccine doesn’t work well because their immune system is tamped down. So we have historically used what’s known as a monoclonal immune, which helps them passively protect. But, the problem is that these subvariants have become more and more distant from the original…the virus has learned how to mutate around them. We have lost the majority of that monoclonal anti-viral treatment.
Arwady stated that although there are serious concerns about the strain, it is still an omicron variant, which presents less risk than if it were from a completely different family.
It’s in the variant of interest category. It is labeled, monitored, and given alphabet soup letters to help keep it on track. But the biggest worry is if something new emerges, which would mean it gets a Greek letter. “We haven’t had one of these in a year. “I hope we never have to have one of those again.”
XBB.1.5 is a result of recombination. Two descendants of BA.2, a subvariant that caused a small wave of cases in April in the US, swapped parts of their genetic code. This led to 14 new mutations in the virus’ spike proteins, and a new sublineage called XBB.
XBB was responsible for a large number of cases in Singapore this fall, but it never made much progress in the US. It had to compete with a number of other variants that had all independently developed some of the same mutations. This made them more closely matched.
Scientists have been closely monitoring XBB’s spinoffs. Columbia University professor of microbiology, immunology, and microbiology Dr. David Ho recently tested viruses that had spikes of XBB, XBB.1, as well as BQ.1 & BQ.1.1 against antibodies from his laboratory. These were people who had been infected with the original and the new bivalent vaccines and who had been both infected as well as vaccinated. His team also tested 23 monoclonal antibodies against these sublineages.
He discovered that XBB.1 was slippier than any other. It was 63x less likely than BA.2 to be neutralized in blood from infected or vaccinated individuals, and 49x less likely to neutralize antibodies than BA.4 or BA.5.
Ho claims that these variants of immune evasion have moved as far from the antibodies we have used against them as the Omicron variant did from the Covid-19 viruses about a year ago.
These levels of immune evasion are “alarming”, and could lead to further problems with the Covid-19 vaccines. These findings were recently published by Cell.
Ho stated Monday that XBB.1.5 was exactly the same story as XBB.1, in terms of anti-body evasion. This means it could escape protections from vaccinations and past infections. It is also resistant to Evusheld and all other current anti-body treatments.
Do Boosters Work with XBB.1.5
Experts believe that the bivalent COVID booster may offer some protection against newer strains, especially against severe illness. This is large because they are still under the omicron family.
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Pekosz stated that it looked like the vaccine, the bivalent boost was providing continued protection against hospitalizations with these variants. It really highlights the importance of injecting a booster in vulnerable populations to continue protection against severe diseases with these new variants.
What are the symptoms of the New COVID Variant XBB 1.5?
Arwady stated that COVID symptoms didn’t change with the new variant. However, she pointed out that symptoms similar to flu are less common in boosters and vaccinated people.
COVID is appearing very much as it has in the past. Arwady stated that it is less likely that the patient will experience severe symptoms. People still get severe symptoms, especially if they aren’t up-to-date on their vaccines. We are now seeing more people with cold-like symptoms. This is especially true if they have all their vaccines up to date.
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