On 22 October 2022, XBB.1.5, a subvariant of COVID-19 variant, Omicron, was detected in the United States. As of 5 January 2023, the variant has been detected in 28 countries, including the United Kingdom, Korea, South Africa, and Australia. Reports on the variant in countries in the Middle East and North Africa region remain scant.
What You Need To Know About the New COVID-19 Subvariant
Concerns about the variant stem from its high transmissibility and infection rates. A senior scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) has reported that XBB.1.5 is the most contagious Omicron sub-variant. In the United States, XBB.1.5 grew from 1% in December to 28% of COVID-19 cases as of 7 January, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is attributed to certain mutations of XBB.1.5 that enable it to bind to human cells. Still, another factor enabling its transmissibility is the reduction of COVID prevention measures, including reduced masking policies and resumption of high-volume travel, particularly over the December holidays.
But the severity and impact of the variant remain unknown according to WHO and other disease control centres. As of 9 January 2023, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control stated that further information about the variant is needed. Scientists also remain cautious in their statements about the variant, citing the complicated nature of COVID-19 and its ever-changing mutations. Nevertheless, they have maintained that we have tools to manage the variant and its potential impacts, namely through vaccines, masks, and antiviral medicines.
Despite this, there are concerns about the subvariant. These include worries about long-COVID risks, as well as increased burdens on already constrained medical systems. For example, in the UK, the National Health Service is experiencing a “twindemic” resulting from COVID-19 and flu cases.
Satire and Misinformation About the New COVID-19 Subvariant
As to be expected, the new variant has resulted in a wave of misinformation. The misinformation is mainly arising from jokes around XBB.1.5’s nickname, Kraken, and the usual suspicions that COVID is a hoax. Adopted by many publications, ‘Kraken’ is a nickname given by Dr. Ryan Gregory, who suggested it as a way to improve communication about the new variant to laypeople and alert them to the worrying variant. While some have made jokes about the name, scientists have also been debating the effectiveness of this type of naming. Overall, debates about the variant’s name have paradoxically brought more attention to the subvariant’s appearance, while also distracting from the main issue.
One social media user suggested that COVID reporting is a part of a media outlet’s business plans. In late December, a fake WhatsApp forward message in India warned that the subvariant’s predecessor, XBB, was more deadly than previous variants, but authorities have warned against this fear mongering, maintaining that no evidence of this has been found yet.
The WHO’s Regulations
The WHO has reported that it is monitoring the situation and conducting a risk assessment. In the meantime, it advised that vaccines and boosters are essential in preventing contracting COVID-19, as well as wearing masks and maintaining distance in public spaces.