The XBB.1.5 subvariant is spreading like wildfire in the United States and COVID-19 experts all over the globe are tracking it with concern.
Israel does not have any confirmed cases of the said variant, but almost 41% of the cases in America are now considered as XBB.1.5.
The number of diagnoses has doubled in just a week’s time, which means the strain has become quite dominant.
Therefore, the strain is expected to arrive in the Holy Land, given that there is a lot of travel between Israel and the United States.
If it arrives, it would end up the COVID calm that Israel seems to be enjoying these days, with just 1,000 confirmed cases every day and declining serious cases and deaths.
Tel Aviv University’s Dr. Yariv Wine said that they have not seen anything like the XBB.1.5 variant since 2021.
The immunologist said that it was spreading faster than others after the Omicron had emerged in November 2021 and had spread quickly in early 2022.
He said that since it was so transmissible, it was being referred to as ‘hell of a variant’. The term ‘super variant’ was also used to describe it.
The new variant is a mutation of the Omicron strain and seems to be spreading quicker than others because it attaches itself to human cells in a much better way.
Wine said that the virus has a mutation at the site where it attaches to human cells. He said that the virus has to bind to cells to infect humans and the XBB.1.5 seems to be doing this quite well.
But, he also added that the statistics from the US could also be exaggerating the strain’s ability to spread because they come after the holiday season.
Parties and gatherings during Christmas are common, which means that social contact is higher and this likely resulted in the quick spread.
The immunologist said that there was no evidence that the new variant was more severe as opposed to others in terms of symptoms and illness, or that it has some different symptoms.
He said that they already have a toolkit for addressing in, since bivalent vaccines are now available, which have been tweaked for responding better to different variants.
A research letter had recently been published by the New England Journal of Medicine, which concluded that people who had received the bivalent booster had better protection than those who got regular vaccines.
Wine stated that there were indications that the bivalent vaccines can offer better protection against subvariants of the Omicron strain.
He added that they were not aware of how they would respond to the new strain, but from the available data, there was no reason to think it would be very different.
The vaccines are not expected to stop infection, but can reduce severity. He said that vulnerable people were advised to get the booster shot, if they had not already received one in the last four months.
This would help in reducing the number of severe cases.