India is on high alert amid China’s worrying COVID-19 surge. We are talking about variants and vaccines with masks all set to make a comeback. The WhatsApp university, peddling fake news, is back in action. A message doing the rounds on social media reads, “COVID-Omicron XBB is 5 times more virulent than the Delta variant and has a higher mortality rate than it. It takes less time for the condition to reach extreme severity and sometimes there are no obvious symptoms.”
The message went so viral that the government had to intervene. The Ministry of Health took to Twitter, saying the message was fake and misleading. “#FakeNews… This message is circulating in some WhatsApp groups regarding XBB variant of #COVID19,” it tweeted.
What is the XXB variant?
For starters, XXB, which is a recombinant of two Omicron subvariants, BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75, is not new to India.
It was first detected in Singapore and the United States. In early October, XXB had spread to 35 countries including India. By the beginning of November, it was identified in multiple states in the country. It is the most dominant variant now and was responsible for 65 per cent of infections in the country as of last month.
The XXB variant has a “growth advantage” over other variants of Omicron and is said to be immune-invasive. When first detected experts said that likely to be the “most contagious” variant of COVID-19. This means that it is likely to cause re-infections and breakthrough infections (cases of illness in those vaccinated).
Also read: It’s not over yet! How worried should India be as China battles a surge in COVID infections?
In October, the World Health Organization (WHO) said, “There has been a broad increase in prevalence of XBB in regional genomic surveillance, but it has not yet been consistently associated with an increase in new infections. While further studies are needed, the current data do not suggest there are substantial differences in disease severity for XBB infections.”
How severe are XXB infections?
XXB has been detected in nations with high vaccination rates and spreads faster but it is not all that dangerous. It is likely to cause fever, cold and cough.
It accounted for eight per cent of all COVID-19 cases in India in September. It increases to 45.2 per cent in October, and 65.6 per cent in November, according to a report in The Indian Express.
While it has led to a rise in infections in nations like Singapore, Associate Professor Alex Cook, vice-dean of research at the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, told Today in October that it did not “lead to worse outcomes” or “increased hospitalisations”.
Is it deadlier than Delta?
No, it is not.
It is the Delta variant that was responsible for the deadly second wave in India in April and May 2021. Categorised as a variant of concern by the World Health Organization, Delta, which was first detected in India, saw hospitals struggling to cope with the rise in cases. The number of deaths had increased exponentially. According to a United Nations report, the deadly wave of the COVID-19 Delta variant “stole” 240,000 lives in India between April and June 2021.
The Delta variant affected the lungs and led to a fall in oxygen saturation. Omicron variants like the XXB affected the upper respiratory tract: the nostrils, throat, and mouth.
Also read: Amid COVID surge, is China suffering from a medicine shortage?
Can XXB lead to a fourth wave?
It is unlikely that XXB will trigger another wave in India. The variant has been dominant for some time now and has not led to an increase in hospitalisations or death. The high vaccination rate has also kept another surge at bay.
The number of cases has also remained low. There has been a consistent dip in cases with the average daily count falling to 158 in the week ending 19 December.
So why the increased caution in India?
This has little to do with the XXB variant and more to do with the COVID-19 surge in neighbouring China, which has been driven by the BF.7 subvariant of Omicron, and other nations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has asked officials to strengthen surveillance measures, especially at international airports. The PM, who chaired a high-level meeting, has urged people to wear masks in crowded places and take the precautionary third dose keeping in mind the upcoming end-of-the-year festivities.
Dr Randeep Guleria, the former chief of AIIMS, told India Today, “I think we may see an increase in the number of cases with mild illness. I don’t think we are going to see an increase in hospitalisations or deaths because our immunity is high and this variant doesn’t lead to pneumonia like the Delta wave.”
With inputs from agencies