B.C. officials report 5 cases of new COVID-19 subvariant that's spreading rapidly in U.S.

Health officials are monitoring a new Omicron subvariant called XBB 1.5, which appears to spread more easily than other subvariants. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)
Health officials are monitoring a new Omicron subvariant called XBB 1.5, which appears to spread more easily than other subvariants. (Paula Duhatschek/CBC - image credit)

B.C. health officials are watching closely as a new, likely more transmissible Omicron subvariant spreads south of the border.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the XBB 1.5 subvariant accounts for more than 40 per cent of new cases in the country, having caused 1.3 per cent of new cases only a month ago.

Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says XBB 1.5 was identified in about five people in B.C. before Christmas, and she expects that number to rise.

"It's not increasing rapidly here, but it is one of the subvariants that we know can take off, particularly in areas where you have lower vaccination rates," she told The Early Edition host Stephen Quinn.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Brian Conway suggested this new variant will soon "dominate" the COVID-19 pandemic at this stage.

"It will likely cause an increase in the number of cases that we're going to be seeing in the community going forward, and this will be on a worldwide basis," he said.

While there is little known about XBB 1.5 at this point, Henry says it can spread quickly. Unlike earlier strains of COVID-19, which attached deep in your lungs, newer variants attach to upper airways, meaning the virus doesn't need to travel as far, she said.

In the last month, hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have gone up slightly, but Henry says XBB 1.5 hasn't increased hospitalization rates — instead, she said, more people are getting less seriously sick.

"That's one of the things we look for: is it causing more people to get more severe illness? Is it evading that protection that we have from vaccine or previous infection or some combination of those? And so far there's no evidence of that," Henry said.

"But we have to keep watching."

Reducing the spread

Conway said the new subvariant is a good reminder for British Columbians to continue to reduce the spread of illness by staying home when sick, wearing masks and ensuring they're up to date on their vaccinations.

"These are the measures we're going to need to take long term. If we do that for this variant and the next one to come, we will be in as good a position," he said.

As illnesses, including this new subvariant, continue to spread, Henry said people should continue wearing masks when appropriate.

"If I'm the only one on the bus and the windows are open and I'm feeling perfectly fine, then no, I probably wouldn't," she said.

"If the bus is crowded or somebody at home is sick or I'm finished at the end of a cold and I'm no longer infectious, I wear a mask."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Protect Our Province B.C., a group of health-care professionals and policy experts who analyze COVID-19 data and advocate for evidence-based policies, believes the province needs to do several things to address the dynamic situation with COVID-19 variants, including bringing back a mask mandate.

Last month, the group penned an open letter calling on the province to increase access to Paxlovid, an antiviral drug used to treat COVID-19.

Paxlovid is a course of pills that can be taken at home, but in order to get the drug in B.C. patients have to fit a certain profile.

"In B.C., we are underusing a very effective treatment for COVID-19 which can potentially not only decrease hospitalizations, critical care admissions and deaths, but also prevent long COVID disability and the development of chronic diseases ..." the letter reads.

"Given that our health-care system can barely cope as it is, limiting further burden becomes imperative."