The potential for an increase in infections and reinfections of the newthe XBB.1.5 variant seems to be in the “rear-view mirror”, according to an expert.
University of Toronto epidemiologist Prabhat Jha told Global News he is “cautiously optimistic” as the variant nicknamed “Kraken” does not appear to be causing a large increase in hospitalizations.
“If (XBB.1.5) causes reinfections in people or new infections in the uninfected, then we could have a problem,” he said. “But if that was going to happen, it should have happened by now.
“I’m cautiously optimistic, it’s mostly in the rear view mirror.”
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While the infection data isn’t as comprehensive as it was at the start of the pandemic because governments are no longer involved in active collection, Jha said the indications from sewage have been encouraging, based on the patterns he’s seeing and what he it happened in the past.
XBB.1.5 is essentially the “nephew or niece” of the main Omicron strains, such as BA.4 and BA.5, which were circulating from August onwards, Jha said. Its symptoms are flu-like, similar to Omicron’s, but do not seem to include the earlier COVID symptom of loss of smell.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s top physician, said in early January that XBB.1.5 does not appear to have more severe symptoms. However, the World Health Organization has said that XBB.1.5 is the “most transmissible” variant so far.
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Jha attributes the better-than-expected perspective on “hybrid immunity” from people who become infected with COVID-19 and receive the vaccine. He said this has created an “immunity wall” that has been more effective than experts previously expected.
“We are in much better shape than we could have imagined last year.”
Still, Jha notes that people over the age of 60 are vulnerable and should continue to wear masks in crowded indoor areas and receive a vaccination booster when eligible.
New data from the US Centers for Disease Control found that updated vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna that targeted the BA.4 and BA.5 variants are nearly as effective on XBB.1.5. While they were 52 percent effective against BA.5 infections, they were 48 percent effective against XBB.1.5 among those 18 to 49 years of age. Vaccines fared better against XBB.1.5 for the elderly, with 43 percent effective against the variant for those 65 and older compared to 37 percent for BA.5.
However, XBB.1.5 is still a highly transmissible virus, and all it takes is one infection in a room full of people for it to spread, Jha said.
“We have to be careful.”
Meanwhile, in the US, Jha said XBB.1.5 is causing most of his new infections and leading to more hospitalizations, which he attributes to a lower vaccination rate in the country. The CDC reported Friday that XBB.1.5 accounts for 61.3 percent of COVID-19 cases in the US and is likely to be the dominant variant now.
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