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A new, hidden strain of coronavirus is spreading rapidly, spooking scientists and Wall Street analysts, but experts say there's reason for optimism

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The XBB is a descendant of two different BA.2 variants and is more immune-fighting than any other Omicron version we’ve seen before.Brandon Bell/Getty Images

  • XBB is a new version of Omicron that evades existing treatments and immunity.

  • It is spreading rapidly in Singapore, and virus watchers are worried it could spread in the US.

  • BQ.1.1 also appears. Experts say: Prepare for more COVID infections this winter.

As Halloween approaches, murmurs that another “nightmare” COVID variant is on the way are spooking reporters and Wall Street analysts alike.

The new variant is called XBB and is already triggering a new wave of infections and hospitalizations in some South Asian countries, including India and Singapore.

Kaiser Family Foundation Senior Fellow, infectious disease specialist Dr. XBB is just one of “many more immune-avoided Omicron sub-variants that are on the rise around the world,” Celine Gounder told Insider.

However, market forecasters at Morgan Stanley said in a note Thursday that “Of the new variants, XBB has the most important immune evasion characteristics.”

How worried should we really be about this new version of the virus, considering we’ve been seeing COVID variants for almost three full years now, and different Omicrons for about a year before XBB comes out of them?

Experts say we should expect more infections this fall and winter, including infections in vaccinated, empowered Americans. But there are some simple things you can do to prepare to fight the XBB and other types of evasive COVID on the horizon.

What is XBB?

XBB is a recombinant variant – that is, a combination of two other BA.2 Omicron sub-variants (specifically BA.2.10.1 + BA.2.75).

Like other Omicrons we’ve seen before, XBB “finds ways to evade vaccines and the way we’re immune from previous infections through changes in spike protein,” UC Berkeley infectious disease specialist John Swartzberg told the San Francisco Chronicle.

It remains to be seen whether XBB will truly dominate the landscape of US COVID infections this winter, or if it will be just one option among the vast buffet of Omicron sub-variants.

So far, it hasn’t even hit the radar of US virus watchers, compared to other Omicrons. The BA.5 subvariable BQ.1.1., which is already on the rise in Europe, is likely to become more worrying for Americans than XBB has ever been.

Professor Moritz Gerstung, a computational biologist in Germany, he said on Twitter recently He said we could be in a “hard race” between BQ.1.1 and XBB over the next few months. Both have a slight growth advantage over BA.5, which is currently the dominant version of COVID in the US.

Why is everyone going crazy for XBB?

cases are increasing rapidly in singapore

cases are increasing rapidly in singapore

Our World in Data/Johns Hopkins University CSSE COVID-19 Data

In Singapore, XBB-driven re-infections and hospitalizations are on the rise – but local trends suggest that this version of the virus may also be slightly milder than BA.5, with a 30% lower risk of hospitalization.

Both XBB and BQ.1.1 also show resistance to monoclonal antibodies, a treatment used for COVID patients.

That’s why Gounder insists that whatever happens next, “it’s really important for those at highest risk, including those aged 50 and over and those who are immunocompromised, to get stronger right away if they haven’t yet this fall.”

New bivalent booster shots should be based on XBB

Remember: this is still Omicron and the new buffs from Pfizer and Moderna target BA.4 and BA.5 on XBB.

This means that current vaccines still need to “protect against serious illness, hospitalizations and death,” Gounder said. “I expect a lot of infections despite vaccination,” he added, in the coming winter months, whether it’s XBB or another loophole new variant.

Fewer than 15 million Americans have received an updated booster so far this fall, according to CDC data – that’s less than 5% of the country, so there’s room for improvement in both:

Gounder said he knows Americans are fed up with mitigation measures, but this winter “high-quality masks will be important to reduce transmission, especially in closed public spaces.”

Read the original article on Business Insider