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New omicron variant XBB.1.5 emerges, driving a surge in northeast U.S.

Here’s everything we know about XBB.1.5, a variant that is spreading faster than any other mutation seen this year

SHARE New omicron variant XBB.1.5 emerges, driving a surge in northeast U.S.
An illustration for the omicron variant.

An illustration for the omicron variant.

Alex Cochran, Deseret News

COVID-19 variants continue to circulate and mutate. Last month, scientists and experts saw omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. gain dominance among reported coronavirus cases in the United States.

Inflection levels have remained below what was seen during the overwhelming wave of January 2022, a time when weekly cases reached over 4 million. But on Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention added another variant to the watch list.

Is subvariant XBB.1.5 a cause for concern?

The new omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 is already behind more than 40% of cases in the week ending on Dec. 31, passing BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.

“For a few months now, we haven’t seen a variant that’s taken off at that speed,” said Pavitra Roychoudhury, director of COVID-19 sequencing at the University of Washington School of Medicine’s virology lab, according to CNN.

The mutation is heavily circulating in northeastern states like Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.

Is subvariant XBB.1.5 deadlier than other variants?

Although China’s COVID-19 outbreak poses a threat to the rest of the world, Dr. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota, told Reuters in an interview that it isn’t what he is most concerned about.

“Ironically, probably the worst variant that the world is facing right now is actually XBB,” he said.

Meanwhile, Dr. Jay Varma, an epidemiologist and the director of the Cornell Center for Pandemic Prevention and Response, said on “NewsHour” that while it is a “very precarious time for our health care system” amid new variants, RSV and influenza, there are ways to stay safe through vaccines and masking.

Varma doesn’t think the new variant is deadlier: “It doesn’t appear that it’s going to increase their risk of hospitalization and death beyond what has already happened in the past before.”

Does subvariant XBB.1.5 evade antibodies?

Axios reported that it is unclear where this mutation originated from, and what its levels of transmissibility are. As for whether it escapes immunity, Yunlong Richard Cao, a scientist and assistant professor at Peking University, took to Twitter to publish some data.

The data indicated that XBB.1.5 has the capability to evade antibodies and is “better at binding to cells through a key receptor,” allowing the virus to be more effective at infecting people, as CNBC reported.

What are the top omicron symptoms to look out for?

The most common omicron-related symptoms are:

  • Cough.
  • Fatigue.
  • Congestion.
  • Runny nose.