Omicron subvariant XBB jumps to 18% of US COVID cases

(Reuters) – The highly contagious Omicron subvariant XBB has surged to more than 50% of COVID-19 cases in the Northeastern United States and threatens to spread rapidly as millions of Americans begin vacation travel on Friday.

For the week ended December 24, XBB was Friday, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The subvariant is currently dominant in the Northeast but accounts for less than 10% of infections in many other parts of the country, according to the CDC.

Andrew Pekosz, a virologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said vacation travel to the United States could accelerate the spread of the XBB subvariant across the country.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) had estimated that 112.7 million people planned to travel 50 miles (80 km) or more from home between Friday and January 2, up 3.6 million travelers from the previous year and closer to pre-pandemic numbers.

But that number would likely be reduced by treacherous weather, which is making air and road travel difficult through the weekend.

“Every time a new variant moves to a different geographic area, there’s a risk that some kind of mini-outbreak will emerge in that area,” Pekosz said.

Still, Pekosz said he doesn’t see the XBB subvariant driving the kind of massive surges seen from the original Omicron variant last winter.

Leading US infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci said in November that updated COVID-19 booster shots — targeting the original variant of the coronavirus, as well as subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 — would still “provide some protection , but not the best protection ” against the XBB variant.

XBB is a subvariant of the BA.2 variant.

The earliest BA.5 lineage now represents only a small fraction of cases, having been overtaken by its offshoots BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which still remain the dominant variants in the United States, albeit in decline.

The surge in cases of the new variant comes a week after the White House COVID Response Coordinator urged Americans to get their flu vaccines and updated COVID-19 boosters, pointing to rising cases in about 90% of the country ahead of the holiday end of the year indicates .

The XBB variant has skyrocketed cases in parts of Asia, including Singapore. While some experts said it’s more easily transmitted, it hasn’t resulted in an increase in hospitalizations.

BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 are expected to account for 63.1% of cases in the United States, down from 64.6% a week ago, the CDC said.

(Reporting by Khushi Mandowara in Bengaluru and Michael Erman in New Jersey; Editing by Shounak Dasgupta, Shinjini Ganguli and Deepa Babington)

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