Why a new version of COVID-19's 'stunning increase' has health officials concerned

Utahns may soon see a new COVID-19 surge, thanks to a new subvariant rapidly spreading across the country.

Utahns may soon see a new COVID-19 surge, thanks to a new subvariant rapidly spreading across the country. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)

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SALT LAKE CITY — Utahns may soon see a new COVID-19 surge, thanks to a new subvariant rapidly spreading across the country.

The latest version of the virus, known as XBB.1.5, has quickly become dominant in the U.S., according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates, going from less than 4% of new cases at the beginning of December to more than 40% by the end of 2022.

"That's a stunning increase," White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha tweeted Wednesday.

The offshoot of the omicron variant that drove COVID-19 cases to record-breaking levels a year ago is seen as causing some 75% of new infections in the Northeast but so far, is believed to be responsible for just over 2% of cases in the region that includes Utah.

But more cases of the highly transmissible subvariant are coming to the Beehive state, said Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services,

"It's here. We've got it. It's going to start growing. That's just the way it works," Oakeson said. "A little spark has landed and it's going to spread into a wildfire. That's kind of what we've seen time and time again with these variants."

XBB.1.5 was first detected in Utah in November, he said, through genome sequencing done by the state on positive COVID-19 test samples. It should take about two weeks for the new subvariant to reach the same levels in Utah as it has in the Northeast, Oakeson said.

"We definitely expect to see a surge," he said, especially coming after the holidays, when family gatherings and other seasonal activities usually lead to a spike in cases. Utah has already been hit with high numbers of flu and RSV cases.

We can work together to manage the virus.

–Ashish Jha , White House COVID-19 response coordinator

Currently, a pair of variants called the "BQs" — BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 — make up most of Utah's COVID-19 cases, Oakeson said, up from around 30% in early November, when the first iteration of the latest variant was being labeled a "nightmare."

A World Health Organization official expressed concern about XBB.1.5 on Wednesday, warning it could signal a new wave of COVID-19, Politico reported, adding the WHO does not yet know whether XBB.1.5 is more severe than other circulating versions of the virus.

"We are concerned about its growth advantage, in particular in some countries in Europe and the Northeast part of the United States, where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating subvariants," said Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO's COVID-19 technical lead.

Van Kerkhove said the new subvariant has been detected in 29 countries, but it could be circulating in many more. She said the results of the WHO study of its severity should be published in the coming days,

The Biden administration is closely tracking the new subvariant, Jha tweeted.

"So am I concerned about XBB.1.5? Yes. Am I worried this represents some huge set back? No," the White House official said in a series of tweets. "We can work together to manage the virus. And if we all do our part (w)e can reduce the impact it will have on our lives."

But he acknowledged it's not yet known whether XBB.1.5 is "more dangerous," and that for those who had COVID-19 before July or haven't yet gotten the updated booster shot , their protection against the subvariant "is probably not that great."

Jha urged people to get the bivalent COVID-19 booster shot that targets earlier omicron subvariants in addition to the original strain of the virus, along with other measures such as testing before gatherings and wearing masks in crowded indoor spaces.

Utah's chief scientist offered similar advice to protect against XBB.1.5.

"It's just really good at getting around your immune system," Oakeson said, suggesting the new subvariant should be "a wake-up call" about the need to stay up to date on vaccinations.

"We're going to keep seeing variants, right? Variants are going to keep happening," he said. "Variants happen because we keep getting infected. We have a really widespread virus everywhere. It's going to keep doing what it's doing."

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Lisa Riley Roche


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