Covid variants — what you need to know

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Like any virus, Covid is constantly evolving. The latest subvariant, XBB.1.5 has some clever mutations that make it particularly contagious. Dr Annette Alaeus, Livi’s Head of Infectious Diseases, explains what this means for us

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Viruses constantly change through mutation, and new variants of a virus are expected to occur over time. For the past year, Omicron has been the dominant variant, and it’s been mutating constantly. The latest subvariant of Omicron that scientists have flagged is named XBB.1.5. Here’s what we know.

Why are there so many subvariants of Omicron?

As a population, we’ve changed a lot since the introduction of the first version of Covid. ‘Collectively, we have many different levels of immunity – from natural immunity from exposure to Covid, to vaccination immunity, to both,’ says Dr Alaeus.

While our immune systems have learned how to defend ourselves, the virus has been learning too. Omicron has had no choice but to find ways around our well-primed immune systems, leading to hundreds of subvariants.

What makes the XXB.1.5 subvariant different?

The ‘X’ in XXB.1.5 stands for ‘recombinant’, meaning it’s a cross between two other subvariants. This differs from other variants, which have accumulated mutations more gradually.

XXB.1.5 has so-called ‘escape mutations’ that allow it to bypass our defences and infect us more easily. ‘It’s an extremely contagious variant,’ says Dr Alaeus.

But while it may be more transmissible, there’s no evidence that it makes us sicker. In fact, it’s in the virus’s interests not to cause severe disease. This is because when a disease causes severe illness it also reduces its opportunity to spread.

What symptoms does XXB.1.5 cause?

In general, Omicron targets the upper respiratory system, and XXB.1.5 is no different. This means you should watch for the same symptoms: Cough Fever Sore throat Runny nose Headaches Muscle aches Fatigue

‘Remember that this isn’t the flu,’ says Dr Alaeus. ‘Even though Covid comes in through the respiratory tract, it’s not just a respiratory infection. It can still affect your digestive system, kidneys, and other parts of the body.’

Are the vaccines effective against the new Covid subvariants?

While XBB.1.5 may be the most contagious variant we’ve seen yet, our vaccines will still offer good protection. ‘The vaccine doesn’t guarantee you won’t get infected, but it will reduce your chances of severe sickness,’ says Dr Alaeus.

How severe is the outbreak of XBB.1.5?

When we look at our collective risk, we have to consider timing. ‘The spread of Covid depends a lot on whether we’re inside or outside more,’ says Dr Alaeus.

‘In the northern hemisphere, we’re slowly heading towards warmer weather. That means XBB.1.5 may not gain as much traction as it would have if we saw it in October. We have to wait and see.’

What’s the best way to protect myself and others against XBB.1.5?

Vaccines are still our best defence against the virus. ‘Keep up to date with your vaccines, and if you haven’t had one, go get one’ says Dr Alaeus.

‘If you’re feeling sick, stay home, and if possible test yourself with an antigen or rapid self test. It varies a lot between people and variants of Covid, but you can spread Covid for up to a week,’ cautions Dr Alaeus.

Dr Alaeus also recommends using the same tactics we know well to prevent spread even though we don’t have the same restrictions. Wash your hands, wear your mask in public spaces.

‘Remember that the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is behind the Covid-infection is also airborne – it doesn’t only spread via droplets. We’ve learned during the pandemic how important it is to keep some physical distance from one another. Go outside if you can – especially if you’re meeting people who are more vulnerable.’ Good ventilation indoors is also important.

What will happen in the future?

Scientists have predicted that new variants of Covid-19 might turn out to be less dangerous. So far, the new variants seem to be following this prediction, but there’s more data to come.

Dr Alaeus says, ‘None of this comes as a surprise to the scientific and clinical community. We knew Covid-19 would continue to mutate and create new variants. Scientists have to continue to monitor the virus and its evolution closely.’

This article has been medically approved by Dr Annette Alaeus, Livi’s Head of Infectious Diseases.

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