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New Omicron subvariant found in Sask. during holidays, report says

At least two cases of the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant have been identified in Saskatchewan, according to the province's latest Community Respiratory Illness Surveillance Program (CRISP) report, released Friday. (Anna Nahabed/Shutterstock - image credit)
At least two cases of the XBB.1.5 Omicron subvariant have been identified in Saskatchewan, according to the province's latest Community Respiratory Illness Surveillance Program (CRISP) report, released Friday. (Anna Nahabed/Shutterstock - image credit)

A new Omicron subvariant was detected in Saskatchewan over the holidays, according to the latest Community Respiratory Illness Surveillance Program (CRISP) report.

The report, which covered the final two weeks of 2022, shows that Omicron subvariants BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 made up nearly 82 per cent of COVID-19 cases identified in Saskatchewan during the reporting week of Dec. 18.

But at least two cases of the XBB.1.5 subvariant, which is spreading in other parts of Canada and the world, have been identified in the province, the report shows.

"That's something to keep a watch on over the next month or two," said Dr. Cory Neudorf, a University of Saskatchewan professor of community health and epidemiology. He is also an interim senior medical health officer with the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Saskatchewan's COVID-19 situation appears to align with that of the rest of Canada.

Omicron variants and subvariants caused the vast majority of COVID-19 cases in the country during the week of Dec. 18, 2022, Public Health Agency of Canada data shows.

XBB.1.5 made up 0.5 per cent of cases found that week, data shows.

Health authorities in the United States and the United Kingdom predict XBB.1.5 will quickly become the dominant strain of COVID-19 in their respective countries.

"We don't really know if [XBB.1.5 is] going to take off… but it's certainly a possibility," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization.

This particular strain of SARS-CoV-2 — the virus that causes COVID-19 — is a sublineage of the XBB and BA.2 subvariants. It was first detected last October and, as of Thursday, had been found in 29 countries, according to the World Health Organization.

It has swapped genes from those previous subvariants, while also mutating in a way that it can latch on tightly to human cells and evade antibodies well, giving it the potential to be highly transmissible, explained Nazeem Muhajarine, a University of Saskatchewan professor of community health and epidemiology.

The available information suggests, however, that XBB.1.5 should not cause more severe infection than previous Omicron subvariants, Rasmussen said.

The health experts CBC News interviewed each noted there isn't enough available data yet to tell how the subvariant will spread in Saskatchewan, especially as people return to their daily lives after the holiday season.

The detection of the new subvariant, they said, makes it important Saskatchewan residents get up-to-date on their COVID-19 vaccinations.

Less than 46 per cent of people aged five or older in Saskatchewan have received their primary series of doses and at least one booster dose, the CRISP report shows.

832 COVID-19 deaths in Sask. in 2022: report

The deadliest year of the pandemic so far for Saskatchewan became even deadlier in its final two weeks.

Data showed 816 people had died from COVID-19 by Dec. 17, 2022, eclipsing the 802 people who died in 2021.

The latest CRISP report shows 10 people died from Dec. 18 to Dec. 31. But public health officials had also identified six more deaths that had occurred in a previous reporting week, pushing the total number of COVID-19 deaths in 2022 to 832.

The amount of COVID-19 circulating in the community increased over the holidays.

Saskatchewan's PCR test-positivity rate increased from 5.8 per cent to 6.7 per cent by the end of year, the report shows.

There is likely more virus circulating in the community, however, as the data excludes positive rapid test results and few people are eligible to receive PCR tests.

Fewer people were admitted to hospital for COVID-19 from Dec. 18-31.

There were 103 hospital admissions from Dec. 18- 24, and 92 hospital admissions from Dec. 25-31.

Eight people were admitted to the intensive care unit for COVID-19 each reporting week.

RSV continues rising

More and more people are contracting respiratory viruses, such as bronchitis, the report shows.

A total of 343 people tested positive for an RSV in the final two weeks of 2022.

The RSV test-positivity rate rose by more than four percentage points, from 10.4 per cent in the week of Dec. 11 to 14.6 per cent in the week of Dec. 25.

"The triple-demic that… we're being warned against, we're certainly in the thick of it right now," Neudorf said.

"We don't need a report to tell us that a lot of people are off sick right now."

Young children — from newborns to four-year-olds — are particularly affected, making up about 70 per cent of all RSV cases, the report shows.

Young children are more severely affected because their bodies haven't had to fight such viruses before, and there are no vaccines developed for RSV yet, Neudorf explained

"They just tend to be more vulnerable," he said, adding that's true for many other infectious diseases.

For many children, though, this is the first time they've encountered RSV because the public health measures that were in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, also protected from RSV, he said.

Health officials expect an increase in the number of people getting sick as residents return to their daily lives, Neudorf said, but he urged people to practice prevention measures such as masking in crowded places.