What do the new Omicron subvariants have in store for us in 2023

Unlike previous waves of COVID, where only one new variant of SARS-CoV-2 such as BA.2 or BA.5 were responsible, we have had an explosion of multiple new Omicron subvariants such as XBB.1, BQ.1.1 and BR.2.1 spreading all at once. 

Health authorities have warned Australia that we could be in the middle of a fourth COVID wave due to the arrival of two new variants that can more easily escape immunity from past infections and vaccination.

However, it’s being inferred by researchers that these new variants all follow a similar journey as past variants i.e. the same set of changes has evolved independently across multiple variants. This is called convergent evolution.

Which variants of COVID-19 have been detected in Australia? 

BA.5 is no longer dominant in the U.S. for the first time since July, as two new subvariants take over. They’ve been named XBB and BQ.1.

The variants have already attracted substantial attention overseas as they appear to be replacing BA.5 rapidly.

XBB and BQ.1 have now been detected in New South Wales, Victoria and Western Australia, while cases and hospitalisations are also beginning to increase.

Latest data sequencing of COVID-19 subvariants 

What can we expect from this fourth wave and will it peak by Christmas?

In Victoria alone, there were 22,281 COVID-19 cases reported this week, an increase of 9.5% on the previous week. The seven-day rolling average of patients with COVID in Victorian hospitals is 430, a 22.2% increase when compared to the same time last week.

“COVID-19 cases and hospitalisations in Victoria increased again this week. Current growth is being driven by a mixture of new Omicron subvariants, which are more immune evasive and are responding to waning immunity from past infection and past vaccination.” the most recent Victorian Chief Health Officer update (dated 25 November 2022) states.

“The mix of subvariants include recombinant strains such as the recently identified XBF (a combination of BA.2.75 and BA.5) as well as existing subvariants BQ.1/BQ.1.1, BA 2.75 and the XBB recombinant.

“These subvariants became dominant in clinical genomics and wastewater surveillance after overtaking BA.4 and BA.5 in early November. There is no evidence these subvariants cause more severe diseases or are resistant to oral antiviral treatments. However, increased numbers overall have contributed to increased hospitalisation rates.”

According to an article published in The Conversation  “…the Singapore wave supports the prediction this fourth Australian wave of 2022 will peak in early December and fall back below current levels by Christmas.”

What does COVID have in store for us in 2023? 

This emergence of multiple COVID-19 variants is being referred to as a ‘variants swarm’ or ‘variant soup’. While it’s making surges hard to predict, it may even be looked at as a positive sign.

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The different variants in the ‘soup’ have all gained a transmission advantage and also follow the same immune-escape tendency. 

According to the article published in the Conversation “If you are infected with one of these new variants, you should also have strong protection against the rest of the soup. The absence of big mutational jumps in dominant variants suggests SARS-CoV2, the virus that causes COVID, may now be entering a period of slower, more continuous evolution. This is what we see for seasonal influenza.”

“COVID has been full of surprises but the evidence suggests we could see SARS-CoV-2 infections fall below our recent trough levels in 2023 and the beginning of a more seasonal pattern to COVID waves.”

What can we do to protect ourselves?

We have discussed the importance of individual responsibility in this stage of the pandemic in an earlier blog post. But, it is a message that bears repeating. 

News variants may keep emerging in the near future. While it isn’t imperative to learn the nomenclature or epidemiology for each one, it is important to know what we as a community can do to keep ourselves and each other safe.

Here are a few things to keep in mind to help you stay ahead of COVID this holiday season:

  1. Wear a mask: A high-quality and well-fitted mask can protect you from the virus even though it’s not mandated anymore
  2. Get your booster dose: New bivalent vaccines targeting Omicron variants are available. Heathershaw’s offers vaccine appointments for the same. If you are eligible and haven’t received your booster yet, you can book one for yourself online.
  3. Ventilation: Open windows and doors when you can, it reduces the spread of the virus
  4. Keep self-testing: Self-testing if you start exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19. It’s better to err on the side of caution if you work in high-risk settings or are around people vulnerable to serious disease
  5. Isolate: If you have COVID, you should stay at home for at least 5 days and until you have no symptoms
  6. Anti-viral eligibility: Being aware of who has access to COVID-19 antivirals in case of illness 
  7. Lastly, practice hand hygiene whenever possible: Using a hand sanitiser daily is a simple act of protection 

Opinions or facts expressed within the content have been sourced from various news sources. While every effort has been taken to source them accurately, the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates do not take any responsibility for errors in these sources. Patients should not rely on the facts or opinions in the content to manage their own health, and should seek the advice of an appropriate medical professional. Further, the opinions or facts in the content do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the pharmacy, its owners, staff or other affiliates.

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