New Delhi: The coronavirus continues to jeopardise the world with its two new sub-lineages of Omicron, XBB 1.5 and BF.7. From October 2022 to January 11, 2023, multiple sequences of the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant have been reported from 38 countries, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Particularly, these two sub-lineages have taken over several countries and infected lakhs of people, especially in China, the US, the Republic of Korea, and Japan, among others. A few of these cases were recently reported in India.
Speaking to the NDTV-Dettol Banega Swasth India team, Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja, Group Medical Director and Senior Director, Institute of Internal Medicine, Max Healthcare, spoke about the two latest sub-lineages of Omicron from the Indian context and detailed the risks associated with the viruses and precautions one can take to prevent themselves from being infected.
NDTV: What are the key characteristics of XBB 1.5 and BF.7?
Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja: Both XBB 1.5 and BF.7 currently present in different parts of the world are the sub-lineages of Omicron. In the last three years, we have seen several variants of coronavirus, from Delta, Alpha to Omicron. There was frequent change in the previous variants, varying between 2-3 months, but fortunately, no other variant has come up other than Omicron in the past 13 months. Omicron has really established itself across the globe. There are mutations and sub-lineages coming within Omicron, and XBB 1.5 and BF.7 are two predominant ones.
NDTV: How infectious are these two sub-lineages, and what are the risks involved?
Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja: In order for a variant or sub-lineage to establish itself, it must possess certain properties that provide the virus with a survival advantage. We have to look at how efficiently or rapidly a virus can transmit from person to person. In that, both XBB 1.5 and B.7 have outsmarted the previous variants and sub-lineages. They are highly infectious; their incubation period is very short, and one person can infect nearly 10–18 people, and the chain increases further. The reason why this virus is transmitting so rapidly is because of certain mutations that make the virus stick to the human cell more efficiently.
NDTV: What is the severity of the XBB 1.5 and BF.7?
Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja: Most of these viruses have become efficient in transmission, and fortunately enough, they have not led to a more severe disease. That level of severity was seen in the Delta variant. So, it’s good news, but there could be several reasons for their lack of severity. The majority of people were infected at the first stage with COVID-19, and now most of us are vaccinated. So, these factors do offer some degree of protection against getting a severe infection. But a vital aspect of these viruses is that they have the phenotype of ‘immune escape’, which means, even if the person had contracted the virus in the past or is now fully vaccinated, there is a risk of getting re-infected, because the important part of their mutations leads them to escape the protective effect that a body develops naturally after an infection or vaccination. So, we can say that these sub-lineages are highly transmissible, highly infectious, and can get a person re-infected. But it is also important to understand that vaccination reduces the severity of the disease.
NDTV: What are the symptoms of XBB 1.5 and BF.7?
Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja: The symptoms of these sub-lineages are no different from the symptoms of the previous strains – high fever lasting up to 3-5 days, throat pain, headache, cough, cold, bodyache, diarrhoea, abdominal pain, etc. But it is to be noted that in earlier times, people also reported the loss of taste and smell, which have not been witnessed in the present cases. The reason for that might be that vaccination is preventing us from getting the effects of those areas of the body concerned with smell and taste.
NDTV: Should India be worried about XBB 1.5 and BF.7 given the rise in the number of cases in other countries?
Dr. Sandeep Budhiraja: Prevention remains a cornerstone. One must prevent oneself from getting infected. With the present strains, people have to be more cautious, because once this illness comes through any members of the family, it will be very difficult to protect others from contracting it. The golden principles of COVID-19 must be followed, which include hand washing, wearing a mask, and maintaining social distance. Additionally, people must take the COVID vaccine booster dose, as vaccination reduces the severity of the disease, especially among the elderly and people with comorbidities.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diarrhoea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.