The latest Omicron subvariant, XBB1.5, is the most transmissible strain of COVID yet — but does not seem to make people sicker, the World Health Organization has said.
XBB.1.5 has spread quickly across the northeastern US and accounts for about 41% of confirmed COVID cases across the nation, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead, warned that the number of people infected with XBB.1.5 has doubled in the US about every two weeks.
“It is the most transmissible subvariant that has been dectected yet,” Van Kerkhove told reporters during a press conference in Geneva on Wednesday.
“The reason for this are the mutations that are within this subvariant of Omicron allowing this virus to adhere to the cell and replace easily,” she said.
Experts say XBB.1.5 is just as skilled at dodging antibodies from vaccines and infection as the XBB and XBB.1 variants and binds more tightly to cells, which gives it a growth advantage.
So far, XBB.1.5 has been detected in 29 countries, and could become more widespread, Van Kerkhove warned.
“The more this virus circulates the more opportunities it will have to change,” Van Kerkhove added. “We do expect further waves of infection around the world but that does not have to translate into further waves of death because our countermeasures continue to work.”
As XBB.1.5 is working toward becoming the dominant COVID strain in the US, China is battling its own national surge of cases. After reversing its draconian “zero-COVID” policy last month in response to social unrest, Chinese hospitals and funeral homes have become inundated.
Graphic images shared online appear to show families in China burning the bodies of their loved ones in the streets due to the increasing spread of the virus making it impossible for many to hold traditional funeral services.
As China struggles to handle its current spike, the US and a growing number of other countries are now requiring travelers coming from China to test negative for coronavirus before boarding their flights.
US and global health officials say Beijing has not been forthcoming enough with information about its current spike in infections.
“We continue to ask China for more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths as well more comprehensive real-time viral sequencing,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday.
“WHO is concerned about the risk to life in China and has reiterated the importance of vaccination, including booster doses to protect against hospitalization, severe disease and death.”