The latest COVID variant, known as XBB.1.5, may possibly soon become the dominant variant in the United States. It is a hybrid version of 2 strains of the BA.2 form of the Omicron variant.
The fall of 2022 saw the emergence of several variants but none of them rose to the top. Today (as of the end of January 2023) we not only have to be concerned about this latest COVID variant, but something is happening in China where there may be as many as 37 million new COVID infections a day. Both events are very concerning.
Here are some questions and answers about COVID XBB.1.5:
This variant is not mild, and it is also very contagious. However, since so many people have been vaccinated and/or infected, it is possible that we won’t see as high a number of deaths as with previous variants. But even 400 to 500 deaths a day is 150,000 to 200,00 deaths a year. This is 4 or 5 times higher than in the worst flu season! We are also expecting to see a lot of hospitalizations and long COVID.
The original mRNA vaccines are turning out to be not as durable as was expected. Data from the CDC shows that the bivalent booster greatly reduced the risk of being hospitalized for the pre-XBB.1.5 and the early data shows that it is beneficial against XBB.1.5 but not as effective. Whether a second bivalent booster may be useful is difficult to determine because only 15 percent of Americans have gotten the first bivalent vaccine.
The newest variants are evolving to evade protection against antibodies. But even with immune-evasive variants, the ability of vaccines to protect against severe disease is still intact. In other words, bivalent boosters will likely be protective against severe disease but will not be as effective against preventing infection.
Early data suggests that the at-home COVID testing kits may have significantly reduced sensitivity to the XBB.1.5 as well as some other Omicron mutations such as BA.2.5 and BN.1.
Thus, it is recommended that Americans should get vaccinated, wear masks, and stay at home if not feeling well.
It is possible that the XBB.1.5 variant may not respond as well to antibody treatment, but the drug Paxlovid is expected to be an effective treatment option.
When a virus explodes through large unvaccinated populations, new variants arise. Delta came from the unvaccinated in India, Omicron from unvaccinated in southern Africa. The next variant could possibly come from China.
China has not been transparent about COVID and its effect on its 1.3 billion people. The people of China are, for the most part, unvaccinated or under-vaccinated and the capacity of their ICUs is not like ours. When the ICUs are overwhelmed, mortality goes up.
Anti-science hawkers, the anti-vaccine lobby, and pseudo-intellectuals would have us believe that COVID XBB.1.5 is primarily a disease of the elderly. They encourage young people to go out and get the disease in order to achieve herd immunity, which is apparently supposed to help the elderly.
While it is true that only about 10% of deaths occur in those under the age of 50, that is still a very large number of people and does not consider the impact this disease can have on those young people. This includes hospitalizations as well as long COVID, which can occur after any COVID infection, even if it is mild or asymptomatic.
Important also is the fact that COVID has not only had a health impact, but a socio-economic impact. If a young person under 50 gets sick, that will impact the rest of their family and the workforce.
Unfortunately, long COVID and the socio-economic impact are difficult to measure or quantify, making it easier for followers of pseudo-science to accept and relay misinformation.
So far, symptoms of COVID XBB.1.5 seem to be similar to what they have been with COVID-19 in general. Symptoms can include:
Here is an example of misinformation and omission:
We know there is a very small risk of myocarditis in a young adult male from a second or third dose of the mRNA vaccine. Anti-vaxxers will push this information all over the internet, but what they leave out is the fact that the real risk of myocarditis and other thrombotic and cardiovascular diseases from the COVID virus is multiple times higher. Long COVID also has a huge damaging impact on the cardiopulmonary system. These are reasons why it is so detrimental for young people.
The COVID-19 virus is likely to be with us for a very long time. The newest variant, XBB.1.5 is just the latest. Whatever will emerge from China remains to be seen.
Do not listen to those who do not tell all and purposely leave out factual information. Before the measles vaccine was available, the risk of hospitalization for measles and permanent neurological disease was prevalent. The risk from the measles vaccine turned out to be miniscule.
Those of us who remember the polio epidemic never questioned the importance of getting vaccinated.
Over 300 million people had succumbed to smallpox before there was a vaccination for it. A worldwide effort to eradicate smallpox was carried out by the World Health Organization in 1967 and the last known case was in Somalia in 1977. In 1980, smallpox was considered eradicated. (Though there is always a chance of smallpox being used as a biological weapon, the US has a stockpile of the vaccine.)
Never forget that the vaccines for COVID-19 saved our entire health system from collapsing. Some estimates suggest the COVID vaccines prevented 3.1 million deaths as well as the creation of hospitals and clinics that would have been needed for the additional number of infected as well as long COVID sufferers.
Variants of the COVID-19 virus will continue to evolve as well as our knowledge on how to best protect ourselves from them. If that requires more boosters, wearing masks, etc., so be it. We must, as a people, fight against vaccine fatigue and listen carefully to science, not pseudo-science, to protect ourselves and our loved ones.