As with earlier subvariants, COVID-19 vaccines remain the best defense against the new subvariant Omicron XBB.1.5, experts say.
The latest, highly contagious Omicron subvariant was called the most transmissible variant so far by the World Health Organization (WHO). Scientists said that since it was first identified in October, XBB.1.5 has proven to be both adept at evading immunity, like Omicron XBB.1, while spreading much more quickly.
“The reason for this is the mutations that are within this subvariant of omicron allowing this virus to adhere to the cell and replicate easily,” WHO’s COVID-19 lead Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove told reporters Wednesday, adding that XBB.1.5 had been identified in 29 countries, and it is likely to spread even wider.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), XBB.1.5 is the fastest spreading subvariant in the United States and was responsible for more than 40.5% of confirmed COVID cases for the week ending Dec, 31—a doubling of cases from the previous week. In the Northeastern United States, XBB.1.5 was responsible for more than 75.3% of the cases.
Vaccines and antivirals still work
“We do expect further waves of infection around the world, but that doesn’t have to translate into further waves of death because our countermeasures continue to work,” said Van Kerkhove, referring to vaccines and antivirals.
Experts quoted by Reuters said that “current vaccines continue to protect against severe symptoms, hospitalization, and death,” and that vaccination is still the best way to fight the new COVID-19 subvariant.
These claims are supported by CDC data, which shows that not only hospitalizations are down, but there are fewer deaths from COVID-19 too: 2,731 this week, compared to 9,498 a year ago.
In a post on Twitter, White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha pointed out that “the new bivalent shot is your best protection against both infection and serious illness,” warning, however that protection against an XBB.1.5 infection is “probably not that great” if a person had an infection before July or they were vaccinated before the bivalent update in September.