Amid a surge of COVID-19 infections in China, a viral text message regarding a new wave due to the XBB variant of the COVID-19 virus is being widely shared on social media. It makes several claims regarding the virus' spread and effects. A few pointers in the message say:
Patients will not have cough or fever as the symptoms of the infection.
Those infected might experience aches, pains, pneumonia, and a loss of appetite.
It claims that XBB is five times "more toxic" and has a higher mortality rate than the Delta variant.
People being tested for this variant show false negative results, and that the nasopharyngeal tests "generally test negative" for this "highly contagious, highly virulent, and lethal" virus.
Fact: The claims made in the viral text are misleading.
To begin with, XBB is not a new variant, it is a subvariant of the Omicron variant of COVID-19.
According to a statement published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) on 27 October 2022, XBB is a recombined subvariant, a sub-lineage of the Omicron variants BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75.
Speaking to The Quint, Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, physician and epidemiologist, who has extensively worked on vaccines and health systems, said, "XBB is a BA.2 subvariant and is not very different from previous variants of Omicron."
Is it more 'deadly'?: Simply put, the XBB subvariant will not "alter much" for those with previous exposure to the Omicron (BA.2) variant.
According to a COVID-19 insights blog post by The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation's (IHME) dated 24 October, people who were previously infected with the Omicron variant will "maintain their immunity against the new subvariant."
Calling the XBB subvariant "just like any other (Omicron) variant," Dr Lahariya said that there was "nothing to worry about."
The Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomics Consortium (INSACOG) also issued a statement that said that there was no report in "increase in severity of disease," and that it was "mild like with other Omicron sub-lineages" among Indian patients.
But what about reinfections?: Dr Lahariya told The Quint, that reinfections were "nothing to be worried about... especially in populations which have been affected by any different Omicron variant, for them it doesn't alter anything."
WHO's statement mentioned that as of 9 October, the XBB subvariant had been detected in 35 countries and the data they had did not suggest "substantial difference in disease severity for XBB infections."
However, early evidence had suggested that there was high risk of reinfection, but were limited to those who had first been infected in the pre-Omicron period.
IMHE's blog also stated the same point, mentioning that those who had low "past Omicron infection" were at risk, predicting that winters in the Northern Hemisphere would bring in "more infections, but not a large increase in deaths."
Are they severe?: Dr Lahariya told us that the XBB subvariant was "not very different from previous variants of Omicron," adding that "for the populations that have not been exposed to the previous SARS-CoV-2 variants, for them any variant could be dangerous."
"What is true is that like any variations, it has a few different mutations. There is a little immune escape, it is marginal, like one or two percent. But it is nothing to be worried about, especially in populations which are affected by any different Omicron variant, for them it doesn't alter anything."Dr Chandrakant Lahariya, physician and epidemiologist.
And the symptoms?: Referring to the viral post, Dr Lahariya said, "The text says "no cough, no fever," but that is true for all variants of Omicron for vaccinated, previously exposed populations. No difference in that for XBB or any other variant."
What should you do?: People should follow "corona appropriate behaviour."
Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) calls the message 'fake': On it's verified Twitter account, the MoHFW shared a tweet calling the viral text on the XBB subvariant "fake" and "misleading."
Conclusion: The viral text calling XBB a new variant of Omicron, making claims regarding the subvariant's symptoms and severity is misleading.
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