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‘It’s definitely here’: Infectious COVID-19 subvariant detected in Utah

By Jamie Lampros - Special to the Daily Herald | Jan 6, 2023

Lee Jin-man, Associated Press

A health worker walks outside of a COVID-19 testing center at the Incheon International Airport In Incheon, South Korea, Thursday, Jan. 5, 2023.

A new COVID-19 subvariant sweeping its way through the globe has arrived in Utah.

Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services, said XBB.1.5, which is an offshoot of the omicron variant, is extremely transmissible and is showing signs of slipping past immunity.

“It’s a variant of concern because it has a set of mutations that allows it to evade our immune response and bind to cells, which makes it easier to infect people,” Oakeson said. “It’s been hanging around in low proportions across the U.S. and the world, but recently it’s been growing rapidly from about 22% to 60%.”

So far, genome sequencing has produced positive results for XBB.1.5, Oakeson said. More testing will be done in the following week or two.

“We’re a couple of weeks behind in terms of sequencing samples, but Utah has followed pretty closely with CDC’s estimates,” he said. “It’s definitely here, but as to how fast it will grow here in Utah, we’ll have to wait and see.”

Health officials across the globe have voiced concern about the new subvariant this week, saying it could cause another rapid surge.

On Wednesday, White House COVID-19 response coordinator Dr. Ashish Jha tweeted that the rapid increase in XBB.1.5 has been “stunning.”

As to how dangerous it is, time will tell. Jha said if you had an infection before July or your last vaccine was before the bivalent update in September, your protection against XBB.1.5 is probably not that great.

“Right now, it doesn’t seem to be driving an increase in hospitalizations,” Oakeson said. “But if you are up to date on your vaccine, it can still keep you out of the hospital.”

Oakeson said the more people who are infected, the more chance the virus has to mutate.

“We’re going to continue to see variants. The more infection, the more spread. It’s going to keep doing what it’s doing,” he said. “We can prevent it from spreading by getting vaccinated, staying home when you’re sick, isolating yourself from family members if possible and wearing a mask in crowded gatherings. If you can keep doing those things, it can reduce the number of infections and slow the rate.”

Oakeson said the risk of side effects from the vaccine are low.

“Really low,” he said. “Yes, people have had side effects, but side effects happen with any vaccine or test or IV. The vaccine is very safe and very effective.”

Oakeson also said antiviral treatment is still showing to be effective. If you are sick, get tested immediately so you can begin treatment, he urged.

“So the bottom line is, this subvariant is more infectious than what we’ve seen. So if you get sick, get tested, stay home and start treatment as soon as possible,” he said.

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