Happy New Year!
A new Omicron variant is rapidly spreading in the US just in time to ring in 2023, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The strain, known XBB.1.5, accounts for about 41% of confirmed COVID cases across the nation, the data shows.
The mutation has gained considerable traction over the past week, the CDC noted — jumping from just 21% seven days ago.
It was first reported in mid-November and has now overtaken the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants, which dominated cases in the fall.
XBB.1.5, a relative of the XBB strain, has mainly been reported in the northeastern section of the US, the health agency said.
Over 70% of COVID cases in New York through Maine are now XBB.1.5.
The strengthening variant could pose a problem amid the busy holiday travel season, experts have warned.
“We’re projecting that it’s going to be the dominant variant in the Northeast region of the country and that it’s going to increase in all regions of the country,” Dr. Barbara Mahon, director of the CDC’s proposed Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division, told CBS News.
Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University, said XBB.1.5 appears to be highly immune evasive because it has an additional mutation that makes it bind better to cells.
“The virus needs to bind tightly to cells to be more efficient at getting in and that could help the virus be a little bit more efficient at infecting people,” Pekosz told CNBC.
However, despite its rapid spread, there’s little indication XBB.1.5 causes more severe illness or poses any greater danger to those infected compared previous strains, Mahon said.
Still, experts are urging caution as COVID hospitalizations have risen in the US in recent weeks as the nation just celebrated Thanksgiving and Christmas.
In the last week weeks of December, hospitalizations rose 3.6% across the US.
Still, the number of COVID hospitalizations aren’t expected to reach the level they did last winter.
Meanwhile, deaths from the virus in the US have remained steady. In the last week of 2022, 2,530 Americans died from the virus, compared to 17,048 over the same period last year.
The XBB strain has been detected in at least 70 other counties, the World Health Organization said.