Healthy Body

What To Know About the Latest Dominant COVID Variant, XBB. 1.5

Photo: Stocksy/ Sean Locke
If you’ve paid attention to any news alerts in the last month or so, you’ve probably seen the rising concerns over a new COVID-19 variant called XBB. 1.5. This Omicron subvariant has been quickly gaining steam in the U.S. since mid-December, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) variant tracking data currently shows that this new subvariant makes up 40 percent of current cases.

What is going on with the XBB. 1.5 variant?

With the start of 2023, the world is looking at the end of the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic and the beginning of the fourth. The past few years have seen waves as a result of the holiday season and the subsequent travel, gathering, and transmission that recurs as a result. This variant, experts are saying, is potentially one of the most transmissible (and immune evasive) variants so far—which obviously raises concerns.

In an era of the pandemic where mask mandates are no longer in play and other respiratory viruses are sending more people to the hospital, a new COVID variant is probably the last thing you want to think about. But how worried should we be?

“XBB. 1.5 is an Omicron offshoot that is rapidly overtaking the U.S. that appears to be more transmissible and immune-evasive in vitro (in the lab), but we don’t have enough clinical data to substantiate a concern in people at this time,” says Luis Ostrosky, MD, UT, an infectious disease specialist with Memorial Hermann in Houston.

That said, research has shown that even if you’ve had a mild case of COVID previously, it doesn’t guarantee that a second or third case will also be mild, says Dr. Ostrosky. So, it’s still a good idea to keep these tried-and-true prevention measures in mind.

What is the best way to protect yourself from the XBB. 1.5 variant?

The truth is, the same precautions that kept us protected from COVID with prior waves will help limit cases now. “Importantly, we're also seeing a large spike in influenza, so ensuring you've received your annual flu shot is another crucial step,” says Andrew Handel, MD, pediatric infectious diseases expert at Stony Brook Children's Hospital in New York.

Another tool that we have now is the updated vaccines. Data shows that the most recent booster available in the U.S., known as the “bivalent booster,” is designed to target the Omicron variant of COVID-19 and its sub-variants, including this new variant XBB. 1.5.

“The COVID vaccine is still the best way to protect against COVID. Because XBB is an Omicron variant, obtaining a booster would provide the best protection against this variant,” says Zachary Hoy, MD, board-certified pediatric infectious disease specialist at Pediatrix Medical Group in Sunrise, Florida.

If you need a refresher, here are some good precautions to take when it comes to COVID:

  1. Make sure you are vaccinated and boosted from COVID-19 (and the flu)
  2. Wear a mask in crowded indoor settings, especially in areas with high transmission rates or if you are at high risk for complications
  3. Test if you have symptoms
  4. Access early treatment like Paxlovid if you are diagnosed

Needless to say, COVID isn’t going away anytime soon. Being diligent about getting vaccinated and following prevention measures are the best way to keep you and your loved ones as healthy as possible—while still carrying on with your lives.

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