WHO tracking Omicron XBB.1.16 subvariant, rising cases in some countries

Sick Indian patient

Soumen Hazra/iStock

Earlier this week at a press briefing, a World Health Organization (WHO) official said though COVID-19 patterns are hard to predict, the XBB.1.16 Omicron subvariant is the one to watch and is fueling a steady rise in cases in India.

In its weekly update on the pandemic yesterday, the WHO said it added XBB.1.16 as the sixth variant under monitoring on Mar 22. It also said though global cases and deaths continue to decline, some countries—including India—are reporting recent spikes in cases.

XBB.1.16 edged out other variants in India

At a Mar 29 press briefing, Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, the WHO's technical lead for COVID-19, said XBB.1.16 has a similar profile to XBB.1.5 but has an additional changes in the spike protein. She said XBB.1.16 has replaced other circulating subvariants in India.

So far, there are about 800 sequences from 22 countries, mostly from India. Van Kerkhove said in lab studies, XBB.1.16 has shown signs of increased infectivity as well as potentially increased pathogenicity.

"So this is one to watch. It's been in circulation for a few months," she said. "We haven't seen a change in severity in individuals or in populations, but that's why we have these systems in place."

India this week reported its highest levels COVID cases in 6 months, prompting stepped up testing and an advisory to increase mask use in New Delhi.

Rising cases in South Asia and Middle East

In its weekly pandemic snapshot yesterday, the WHO said overall cases and deaths continue to decline, but said several countries are reporting significant increases in cases. Case trends in four WHO regions declined or held steady, but levels are on the rise in the Eastern Mediterranean and South East Asia region, an area that includes India.

In the Eastern Mediterranean region, Iran, Kuwait, and Libya reported the biggest proportional increases over the last 28 days, with the highest numbers reported from Iran, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Iran's health minister yesterday said that the latest COVID-19 wave has led to an increase in hospitalizations and that both XBB and BQ.1 subvariants are circulating, Anadolu Agency reported today. Thirteen cities are in the red risk category, and the spike in activity is occurring alongside the Iranian New Year Holiday.

In the WHO's South East Asia region, India has both the highest proportional rise in cases and the most cases over the past 4 weeks. Also, Indonesia reported a modest rise in cases.

US markers decline, XBB.1.5 reaches saturation

In a biweekly data summary today the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said US COVID markers continue to decline. The 7-day average for new daily COVID cases is about 20,000, down 9.2% compared to the previous 7-day average. About 228 people die from COVID each day, down 29.4% compared to the previous 7-day average for deaths.

In its latest variant proportion estimates, the CDC said XBB.1.5 has reached saturation, making up 87.9% of samples, and that three other Omicron subvariants show positive growth. They include XBB.1.9.1, XBB, and XBB.1.5.1.


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