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A new variant of Omicron is sweeping across the US this winter season — but experts insist it’s not more likely to cause severe illness or death.
The new subvariant – another spinoff of Omicron – is behind roughly 70 percent of new infections in the worst affected parts of the US and four in 10 nationally.
It has spread rapidly in recent weeks, accounting for just four percent of US cases in early December, indicating it has a major growth advantage over rival strains.
The World Health Organization (WHO) described it as the ‘most transmissible variant yet’ this week.
Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid, told a press conference Wednesday: ‘We are concerned about its growth advantage in particular in some countries in Europe and in the US… particularly the Northeast part of the United States, where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating variants.
‘Our concern is how transmissible it is, … and the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it will have to change.’
XBB.1.5 has gained 14 new mutations to the virus’ spike proteins compared with its ancestor strains, which appear to have given it enhanced antibody-resistance.
This means people who are vaccinated or have had a previous infection are more susceptible to an infection – though not necessarily severe illness.
Antibodies are just one part of the overall immune response to Covid, with other virus-fighting substances like T-cells playing a vital role.
But what appears to be spooking the WHO is the prospect of XBB.1.5 being the gateway to a scarier variant.
The more infections that occur, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and evolve.
XXB.1.5 is a highly contagious new strain of the Omicron variant, making up roughly 4 in 10 of all cases across the US by the end of December
Covid infections nationally have started to tick up in recent weeks, with around 400,000 weekly cases now compared to 300,000 a month ago.
This could be due to increased mixing during the festive period as well as the new and infectious variant.
But rates are still far lower than this time last year, at the height of the Omicron wave, when there were 4million weekly cases.
Hospital admissions among people with Covid have also risen in recent weeks – but pale in comparison to last year.
There were around 6,500 admissions for the virus across the US every day last week, on average — around double the number in early November.
More than 20,000 Americans were being hospitalized with the virus this time last year.
Scientists say that encouraging indications as to XXB.1.5’s susceptibility to vaccines can be taken from Singapore’s experience with XXB.
Despite a surge of cases, there was not a corresponding rise in hospitalizations and deaths – a phenomenon American immunologist Rick Bright attributes to the high percentage of Singaporeans immunized with the latest vaccines and boosters.
Americans, of which only 37.5% of the most vulnerable age bracket – 65 and overs – has received the latest booster, may not have the same luck.
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