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The arrival of the XBB variant will not cause a new deadly surge of COVID, officials hope

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed Friday that they are now tracking a new variant of concern in the US known as XBB, which has grown to account for about 3.1% of new infections worldwide. country.

The prevalence of the strain has grown the most so far in the Northeast, according to the agency report. weekly estimates. More than 5% of infections in regions from New Jersey to Maine are linked to XBB, in this week’s “Nowcast” from the CDC.

XBB is behind a large number of infections all over something south asian countries and has formed an increasing part of reported virus sequences from worldwide and in international travelers arriving.

Earlier this month, the CDC offered preliminary estimates which suggests that XBB is potentially doubling in proportion every 12 days. That could be faster than the current pace of the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants that now dominate across the country.

However, the Biden administration’s top officials and COVID experts say that Do not think XBB will pose a new threat on the scale of when the Omicron variant emerged a year ago.

“Where we’ve seen surges, they’ve seen it mostly driven by seasonality, people coming in, spending more time together, but not specifically driven by the emergence of a new variant,” said Ian Williams of the CDC. a meeting from CDC’s Emergency Preparedness and Response Advisors earlier this month.

XBB is one of several new lineages that have displaced BA.4 and BA.5, the Omicron variant siblings that had generated a wave of cases over the summer. As of this week, the CDC says BA.5 has dropped to less than 1 in 5 new infections nationwide and BA.4 is now all but gone.

The arrival of the strain also comes at a time when most regions, including the Northeast, are seeing a relatively flat or slow COVID-19. hospitalization rates.

About 3 out of 4 Americans currently live in counties considered “low” COVID-19 Community Levelsthe lowest level of precautions recommended by the agency, according to figures released Friday by the agency.

“However, there’s a lot of concern that a new variant could emerge and start over. So there’s a lot of work focused on making sure we’re prepared and thinking about that and watching if it emerges around the world, so you can be prepared. Williams added.

A “recombinant” strain

First named by scientists in September, XBB is believed to be a “recombinant” of two different Omicron sub-variants, BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75, which emerged earlier this year. It is the latest in a now dominant multitude of strains carrying mutations that could evade key COVID antibody drugs.

“There’s been a rapid increase in XBB, but it doesn’t seem like it’s particularly more severe than other variants,” Derek Smith, director of the Center for Pathogen Evolution at Cambridge University, told CBS News in an interview late this year. past. month.

Smith helps run the National Institutes of Health effort to detect and analyze variants as soon as they arise, as part of a “Avengers Style” program that spans multiple US federal agencies and outside experts.

“XBB, it came to our attention and then it was given priority, even though it was a small number, because it had a large number of different substitutions of the viruses that are currently circulating in the [receptor-binding domain]which meant it could be an exhaust variant,” Smith said.

Scientists on the NIH effort began early on to order supplies to make mock-ups of XBB to test how it might escape immunity in the lab compared to other strains.

The data now also suggests that the new COVID boosters will offer at least some improved protection against the strain.

A study released by Pfizer and BioNTech earlier this month, which was published as preprint and has yet to be peer-reviewed, found that its updated COVID booster appears to be effective in triggering better antibody responses against an XBB strain.

However, the company’s scientists also said it was among the variants that suffered the worst neutralization of its shot.

“It doesn’t fall off the map, but it does fall. So you might expect some protection, but not optimal protection,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s top medical adviser, said in a White House meeting on Wednesday. instructions.

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