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White House urges calm as XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant spreads

By Sarah May on
 January 5, 2023

Amid news that a new COVID-19 subvariant, known as XBB.1.5, is spreading rapidly across the United States, officials at the White House are taking steps to guard against an unnecessary panic, particularly given that it remains unknown whether the emergent variety presents any greater level of danger than prior omicron strains, as The Hill reports.

Action on the part of the administration comes as the XBB.1.5 variant is said to account for at least 40% of all current coronavirus infections in the country and upwards of two-thirds of all cases in the Northeastern United States.

White House addresses concerns

Ashish Jha, COVID-19 response coordinator for the Biden administration, took to Twitter Wednesday to discuss growing alarm about the proliferation of the XBB.1.5 subvariant.

Jha conceded that the explosion in XBB.1.5 cases from 4% of all infections to more than 40% represented a “stunning increase,” but urged against premature overreaction in terms of the actual risk posed.

The doctor noted that the new subvariant is probably more immune-evasive than prior strains of the virus, and it may also be more easily spread, but that does not necessarily mean that it more dangerous to those who are ultimately infected with it.

Addressing the potential effectiveness of prior vaccination in the face of the new subvariant, Jha suggested, “If you had an infection before July or your last vaccine was before bivalent update in September, your protection against an XBB.1.5 infection is probably not that great.”

Even so, Jha posited, antiviral medications including Paxlovid and Molnupiravir were likely still useful in treating those infected with the new subvariant, and that while “the jury's still out” with regard to XBB.1.5, he believes “we know how to mitigate these surges.”

WHO, others weigh in

White House officials are not the only ones weighing in on the emergence of the new variant, with the World Health Organization (WHO) also offering its own insights on the viral strain, as ABC News reports.

Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the WHO noted that the XBB.1.5 has indeed supplanted other variants as the main driver of COVID-19 infections in Europe and in some parts of the U.S., noting, “We are concerned about [XBB.1.5's] growth advantage.”

Other experts are carefully watching and waiting to learn more about how well existing vaccines will work against the new strain, with some continuing to recommend the updated bivalent shots as the most relevant means of protection.

Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and co-director of Texas Children's Hospital Center for Vaccine Development explained, “Toward the end of last year, the CDC came out with data showing that those who got vaccinated and boosted with the bivalent had an almost 20-fold decreased risk of dying and severe illness.”

Hotez then added, however, “The problem is that was all before XBB.1.5.,” suggesting that there remain many unknowns about the new variant making its way across the world.

Chinese surge rages on

After recently reversing the zero-COVID strategies pursued throughout the pandemic, China is reportedly experiencing a devastating surge in infections, serious illness, and death, yet the government is facing accusations that it is vastly under-reporting the severity of the situation to the rest of the world, according to Reuters.

Officials from the WHO have said that no new coronavirus variant has emerged in China, but the country's government continues to disguise the seriousness of the spread since the abrupt change in public health policy.

Despite numerous reports of Chinese hospitals, funeral homes, and crematoriums being overwhelmed to the point of disaster, the government there has reported no more than five deaths per day since changing course on its zero-COVID initiative.

Responding to the official tally of deaths in the recent COVID-19 surge, a 66-year-old resident of Beijing replied simply, “That is totally ridiculous.”

According to the New York Post, social media has been deluged in recent days with images of families in China resorting to burning their loved ones' bodies on the street due to the inability of funeral facilities to accept additional corpses for proper handling, with one funeral home employee stating, “The whole system is paralyzed right now.”

Despite the horrific scenes playing out daily in China, it appears – at least so far – that the latest subvariant to make its presence known in the United States will be no match for the widespread natural immunity enjoyed across large segments of the population and the broad availability of multiple antiviral treatments.