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MSU expert: Newest COVID variant is highly transmissible, treatable

FILE - Doses of the anti-viral drug Paxlovid are displayed in New York on Aug. 1, 2022. China's health care authorities declined to include Pfizer's COVID-19 treatment drug in a national reimbursement list that would have allowed patients to get it at a cheaper price throughout the country, saying it was too expensive. (AP Photo/Stephanie Nano, File)
Stephanie Nano/AP
The Pfizer COVID treatment Paxlovid can help reduce symptoms.

The World Health Organization is describing one of the newest variants of the COVID-19 virus as the most transmissible yet. It’s called XBB.1.5.

Michigan State University infectious disease expert Dr. Peter Gulick agrees that XBB.1.5 has shown a great ability to avoid the immune system and vaccines. That means if you’ve already gotten COVID at some point, you could get reinfected.

XBB.1.5 is being detected in about 28% of COVID cases in the United States right now, up from just 2% a month ago. The new variant seems to have hit the Northeastern part of the country the hardest.

“They’re saying anywhere from 50% to 70% of the strains are that particular variant,” Gulick said. “In the Midwest, it’s more like about 7% to 10%.”

While highly transmissible, Gulick says experts aren’t too concerned about the XBB.1.5 strain dramatically increasing the number of tragic outcomes. As is the case with other variants, the groups most at risk are those who are immunocompromised, especially those older than 65, and people with comorbidities.

“So, prevention-wise, the vaccines are still very effective,” Gulick continued. “Not in preventing somebody from getting infected, but preventing serious complications such as hospitalizations and deaths.”

Gulick adds that while the newest bivalent boosters may not hit this variant directly, they can still give the body protection to prevent serious complications. He wishes more people were staying up to date with their boosters. At last report, only 15% of those eligible, and only 38% of seniors, have gotten a second booster shot after the initial vaccine series.

“[Health officials] have noted that patients that have gotten vaccinated versus those that haven’t have much reduced hospitalization rates, and definitely much less death rates than those that are unvaccinated,” Gulick said.

As for treatment, Gulick says antiviral medications like Paxlovid and Remdesivir help reduce the severity of symptoms.

“Individuals that have been exposed usually within three to five days after symptoms, can still take these drugs very effectively and they still are very effective in treating somebody that has early COVID infections, regardless of the variant,” Gulick said, “So, the antivirals are still very effective in treating individuals.”

He cautions, though, that the monoclonal antibodies that have been used in infusion treatments to fight COVID don’t work well against these newest variants.

Gulick also says while people have grown tired of masking, it can still be an important preventative measure, especially for high-risk people in crowded situations.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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