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US: New Omicron Covid Subvariant Causing Concern, China Downplaying Current Covid Surge

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The XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant is raising concerns of a potential surge in COVID-19 cases as it sweeps across the Northeast.

Officials have warned in recent weeks that the strain is highly transmissible, can more easily evade the immunity offered by vaccines or prior infections than past variants and is likely to drive cases up around the country.

  • The subvariant has already rapidly spread in the Northeast, where it is currently estimated to be causing about 72 percent of infections.
  • But while another omicron subvariant, BQ.1.1, is still dominant in the country beyond the Northeast, XBB.1.5 has also reached all other regions of the U.S., and officials predict it will continue to spread. Due to its recent ascent, data on XBB.1.5 is limited, but health officials have disclosed some key insights into the strain, as well as what questions remain unanswered.

Most transmissible: XBB.1.5 is “the most transmissible subvariant that has been detected yet” of the already highly contagious omicron strain, Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 response, said in a recent briefing.

Cases likely to rise: Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Robert Califf said when speaking about XBB.1.5 this week that he expected a further increase in cases.

Treatments should still work: Ashish Jha, the White House’s COVID-19 response coordinator, said the updated bivalent COVID-19 booster is still the “best protection” against infection and severe illness

Oral antivirals like Paxlovid and molnupiravir are also still expected to be effective against XBB.1.5, as they don’t function by boosting antibodies — which the strain appears better able to evade — but by hindering the virus’s ability to replicate itself.

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Satellite images capture crowding at China’s crematoriums and funeral homes as Covid surge continues

 

CNN  —  Satellite images taken over a number of Chinese cities have captured crowding at crematoriums and funeral homes, as the country continues its battle with an unprecedented wave of Covid-19 infections following its dismantling of severe pandemic restrictions.

The images – taken by Maxar in late December and early January and reviewed by CNN – show a funeral home on the outskirts of Beijing, which appears to have constructed a brand-new parking area, as well as lines of vehicles waiting outside of funeral homes in Kunming, Nanjing, Chengdu, Tangshan and Huzhou.

Streets around the Kunming Funeral Home one year ago.
The scene at the same home last week, showing more cars parked along streets near the entrance.

China recently moved away from its strict zero-Covid approach to the virus, which had sparked mass unrest after more than two years of tight controls on citizens’ personal lives.

China’s strict policy shielded its population from the kind of mass deaths seen in Western nations – a contrast repeatedly driven home by the Communist Party to illustrate the supposed superiority of its restrictions.

The satellite pictures are consistent with CNN’s reporting and witness accounts shared to social media concerning overcrowding in funeral homes and crematoriums.

CNN has reported first-hand in Beijing on the makeshift facilities being used to store the deceased, as overworked staff try to keep up with the volume of crates containing yellow body bags, and families report waiting for days to bury or cremate their loved ones.

A Tangshan City funeral home in January 2020, before the pandemic swept the country.
The same home last week, where many more vehicles are parked.

Meanwhile, China’s official Covid-19 death toll since it eased restrictions remains strikingly low – with only 37 deaths recorded since December 7.

The country only lists those Covid patients who succumbed with respiratory failure as having died of Covid, a criteria the World Health Organization (WHO) has criticized as “quite narrow.”

As reports of overwhelmed hospitals and funeral homes roll in, China has faced accusations from the WHO and US that it is under-representing the severity of its current outbreak, with top global health officials urging Beijing to share more data about the explosive spread.

“We continue to ask China for more rapid, regular, reliable data on hospitalizations and deaths, as well as more comprehensive, real-time viral sequencing,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said at a news briefing in Geneva last week.

“WHO is concerned about the risk to life in China and has reiterated the importance of vaccination, including booster doses, to protect against hospitalization, severe disease, and death,” he said.

Speaking in more detail, WHO executive director for health emergencies Mike Ryan said the numbers released by China “under-represent the true impact of the disease” in terms of hospital and ICU admissions, as well as deaths.

He acknowledged that many countries have seen lags in reporting hospital data, but pointed to China’s definition of a Covid death as part of the issue.

 

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