Covid-19 variant XBB.1.5 news to know in January 2023

Jacqueline Raposo
Jacqueline Raposo
Jan 11, 2023
A colorful indoor photograph of a young white woman wearing a golden yellow shirt and medical mask, pointing to something off camera where a white colleague with blond hair.

Reviewed by Dr. Christina Ennabi, January 10th, 2023

Key points:

  • The Covid-19 variant going around right now is XBB.1.5. It now causes almost 28% of nationwide infections.
  • Early reports on XBB.1.5 symptoms suggest typical cold-like fatigue, sore throat, stuffiness and headaches with a potential increase in body aches.
  • Paxlovid continues to protect high-risk people infected with Covid-19. Bivalent boosters also offer increased antibody protection against serious illness.

Covid-19 variant XBB.1.5 news to know in January 2023

Looking for a fun + quippy way to learn about Covid-19 variant XBB.1.5? Watch Jimmy Kimmel sing the basics while parodying the B-52’s “Love Shack.”

You won’t be able to get the rhythm out of your head afterward. But you’ll get the gist.

If you want details on how XBB.1.5 symptoms or how it stands up against vaccination, you’ve come to the right place. Yes, keeping up with Covid-19 news is exhausting. None of us want to move through the world on guard. But the pandemic isn’t over. You can always prepare for your next infection with info from our Covid-19 treatments page. But here’s where we stand as XBB.1.5 kicks off 2023.

What is the Covid-19 XBB.1.5 variant?

The new Covid-19 variant XBB.1.5 is another Omicron offshoot. It’s a subvariant of Omicron strains BA.2.75 and BA.2.10.1. It was first discovered in the U.S. and has since spread to at least 29 other countries.

XBB.1.5 may be the most transmissible variant yet. Because of this, an Ontario biology professor nicknamed it Kraken—a nod to the mythological sea monster that could capsize the strongest of sea vessels in its lust for human flesh. Dramatic. But sort of accurate.

What do we know about XBB.1.5 transmission, hospitalization and death rates?

Early data suggests that XBB.1.5 mutated to better bind to our body’s receptors so that it then has time to replicate. We’ve seen this capability play out in recent transmission rates:

  • At the beginning of December, XBB.1.5 made up about 1% of infections. 
  • As of January 9th, it makes up almost 28% of infections.
  • XBB.1.5 dominates in some areas, making up over 70%  of cases in the northeast
  • The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control reports it has a doubling time of 9 days. 

Given our recent holiday travel + socialization, we should expect a rapid increase of Covid-19 cases in the coming weeks.

Hospitalizations across all age groups are rising slightly. And 10,000 people died from Covid-19 in December—a notch higher than we’ve seen in previous months.

This doesn’t mean that the XBB.1.5 variant is more deadly than recent variants. As it’s another Omicron subvariant, we have no reason to assume it will be. But it does highlight how reinforced precautions can curb transmission + protect the high-risk among us—the loved ones still dying from Covid-19.

A color indoor photograph of a Hispanic senior couple on a couch. A gray-haired women wearing black stretches out with her feet on the lap of a grey-haired man wearing a blue plaid shirt and jeans, who rubs her feet.

Does the Covid variant XBB.1.5 evade vaccines?

Similar to prior Omicron variants, XBB.1.5 can evade protection from immunization + prior infection. (Hence the increased infection rates.) Some healthcare experts believe it’s so wily that people who have evaded infection thus far will most likely catch Covid-19 now. They also suspect around 80% of those who have already gotten Covid-19 will get it again in the coming months.

But vaccination still significantly reduces risk of serious illness + hospitalization. Unvaccinated people continue to die from Covid-19 at higher rates than vaccinated people. Both Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna’s bivalent boosters offer increased neutralizing antibody protection against Omicron compared to the original monovalent vaccines. And early studies show they offer increased antibody protection against XBB.1.5.

All viruses mutate to evade vaccinations. But there is no proof that vaccinations have made Kraken stronger than prior variants.

What are the new Covid XBB.1.5 variant symptoms?

XBB.1.5 hasn’t yet thrown us any new symptoms.

Some specialists note a slight increase in muscle achiness along with standard symptoms like chills, sore throat, stuffiness and headaches. But emergency specialists are not seeing the loss of taste or smell we experienced with Delta and Alpha variants. They’re also not seeing severe shortness of breath that requires ventilation—also common in earlier variants.

Does Paxlovid protect against the Covid variant XBB.1.5?

Immunocompromised people continue to face increased risk with this new Omicron variant. As we saw with BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, a (preprint) study from China shows that Evusheld and Bebtelovimab do not neutralize XBB.1.5. Nor do monoclonal antibodies created to replace the antibodies immunocompromised people cannot make for themselves.

But experts expect the antiviral Paxlovid will continue to protect high-risk people with active Covid-19 infections from serious illness or hospitalization. To be effective, Paxlovid must be taken within five days of first symptoms. Learn how Dr. B can help you access Paxlovid fast here.

How can I protect myself against XBB.1.5?

Community transmission rates can help us determine precautionary measures like masking + distancing practices. As of January 9th, almost 75% of the U.S. population lives in an area of high transmission. (Find yours here.)

Especially if you live in an area of high transmission or spend time with high-risk people, mask indoors when among large groups. Take two rapid tests in a 48-hour period before spending time indoors with any high-risk person. Increase ventilation + filtration whenever possible. And keep on top of vaccination + antiviral medication access near you.

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