Thailand has recently identified 27 instances of the novel Omicron sub-variant XBB.1.16, leading authorities to scrutinize its transmission rate and its potential to evade the virus-fighting capabilities developed from months or years of vaccinations and herd immunity.
The Ministry of Public Health advises individuals, particularly the elderly and those with pre-existing conditions, to receive booster shots in light of increasing concerns regarding new outbreaks. Here’s what you need to know about this emerging sub-variant.
What is XBB.1.16?
On March 30, the World Health Organization (WHO) designated XBB.1.16 as a Variant Under Monitoring (VUM) after its initial detection in January in India.
It initially combined with Omicron’s BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75 sub-variants, and its mutations were identified in the spike proteins of E180V, F486P, and K478R. The mutation at the spike protein’s 478 locations has accelerated transmission speed.
Laboratory tests revealed that XBB.1.16 can spread more effectively than XBB.1 and XBB.1.5, indicating it may disperse across the globe more rapidly. However, no scientific evidence exists to suggest it will cause more severe symptoms than previous virus versions.
What are the symptoms?
XBB.1.16 exhibits symptoms similar to other sub-variants, including fever, cough, sore throat, and a runny nose. It is more worrisome when patients experience itchy eyes, conjunctivitis, or the so-called “sticky eyes,” as these conditions are not linked to other sub-variants.
Some experts have downplayed these symptoms as they have only been observed in children in India. Dr. Supakit Sirilak, head of the Department of Medical Sciences, stated that eye irritation has not been confirmed as a symptom associated with XBB.1.16.
What is the situation in Thailand?
On Tuesday, the Department of Medical Sciences confirmed 27 cases and one death related to this new sub-variant. The deceased was an elderly individual. The department anticipates a surge in cases following the conclusion of the Songkran celebrations.
It plans to gather a minimum of 700 samples weekly to track the strain’s proliferation.
XBB.1.16 is currently estimated to represent 10% of all new Covid infections, compared to 30% for XBB. The department predicts that XBB.1.16 will become the predominant strain by the middle of next month.
As a result, the department is heeding the WHO’s advice to closely monitor the situation, as XBB.1.16’s global prevalence increased from 0.21% of all new Covid-19 cases in late February to an estimated 3.96% a month later. In the US, it constituted an estimated 7.2% of all Covid-19 samples from April 9-15.
Pattern of local outbreaks
The Department of Disease Control (DDC) anticipates a minor wave of Covid-19 outbreaks beginning in May, with a peak in June. The number of cases will then decline, mirroring the typical pattern of influenza outbreaks.
When students return to school in May, the DDC expects a small wave of infections. In response, the Ministry of Public Health asserts that it has already prepared sufficient medications and other resources to address such outbreaks.
Keeping Covid at bay
The ministry advises the public to exercise utmost care in order to avoid infections. Individuals should continue to follow self-protective practices, including adhering to the “mask-wearing mandate” in public areas, washing their hands regularly, maintaining social distancing, and receiving a booster shot, as stated.
The Ministry wishes to reemphasize the importance of obtaining a booster shot promptly, especially for elderly individuals and those with chronic illnesses, who have not received a dose in over three months.
It is noteworthy that the Ministry is currently offering vaccinations free of charge, and has an ample supply of over 10 million doses from multiple vaccine platforms.
Guidelines for vaccine administration have been established, suggesting individuals receive one dose annually, akin to standard flu shots. Commencing next month, the two vaccines will be given to individuals simultaneously.