Viruses, including COVID-19, mutate and evolve in an attempt to evade our immune system

At the beginning of flu season, we saw a big uptick in both RSV and influenza cases. While the good news is that, in most places across the United States, cases of both of the viral illnesses have either plateaued or begun to decrease, another illness has again started to appear in the headlines: COVID-19.

If you’ve been closely following COVID-19 news, you may have seen mention of XBB.1.5, an Omicron subvariant that is spreading rapidly and quickly becoming the dominant variant in many areas across the country.

Q. Why is there a new COVID variant?

A. Viruses, including COVID-19, mutate and evolve in an attempt to evade our immune system. While it is common for virus variants to emerge, research so far has shown that the XBB.1.5 variant is good at evading protective antibodies, including those from the COVID-19 vaccine. This means that even those who have been vaccinated, or those who have been infected previously, may become infected with XBB.1.5.

Q. Are there different symptoms with this variant?

A. So far, there has been no evidence to suggest that symptoms of XBB.1.5 are different than those of other Omicron variants. While it does appear that this strain of COVID-19 is more contagious, it has so far not appeared to cause more severe disease. The most common symptoms include a runny nose, headache and sore throat. The COVID-19 vaccine can also still protect against serious illness or hospitalization if you get this variant.   

Q. Can COVID-19 tests pick up this new variant?

A. PCR testing will pick up this new variant. And thus far, there’s no reason to think that this variant won’t be picked up by an at-home test as well, so if you have symptoms or are exposed to someone with COVID-19, you can certainly still take a test at home.

Q. What can I do to protect myself from the new variant?  

A. The most important way to protect yourself, and your family, against serious illness from COVID-19 remain the same: get vaccinated and boosted, especially if you are at high risk or are an elderly adult. We also encourage everyone to stay home if they are not feeling well. If you have to travel, or are in a poorly ventilated area or any area where there are large gatherings, consider wearing a mask.

Q. Are there treatments for this new COVID-19 variant?

A. Antiviral treatments, such as Paxlovid, should work against XBB.1.5. However, monoclonal antibody treatments have shown a lack of efficacy against newer variants, and that likely includes XBB.1.5. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration actually withdrew its authorization for the monoclonal antibody treatments, because they haven’t proven as effective in treating severe cases of newer variants of COVID-19.

That said, many people who get COVID-19 have mild or moderate symptoms that can be treated at home. Over-the-counter medication, such as ibuprofen or Tyenol, can be used to treat fevers, and of course, we encourage drinking lots of fluids and prioritizing rest.  

Q. What should I do if I think I have COVID-19?

A. No matter what variant of COVID-19 you have, you should stay home, even if you have no symptoms or if they are mild. If you have severe symptoms, or if your symptoms don’t resolve or begin to get better within a few days, contact your primary care provider’s office for guidance.

Paul Berg, M.D., is the chief medical officer at MyMichigan Health.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.