Cases of Omicron variant XBB is rising in China, forming a new wave that is expected to rise to nearly 65 million cases in a week at the end of June.
Infections are likely to reach 40 million per week by the end of the month, senior health adviser Zhong Nashan told attendees at a biotech conference in Guangzhou. according to Bloomberg.
The wave could grow to become the second largest in the country, Fortune experts said. It certainly pales in comparison to the country’s first major wave late last year, where an estimated 37 million people were infected in one day—Dec. 20—alone.
That wave—the equivalent of the early days of the pandemic for the rest of the world—occurred after the country suddenly abandoned its years. “zero COVID” policy, effectively allowing the virus to “rip off” a population that is largely shielded from it – and that is largely unvaccinated.
A ‘mostly invisible’ wave
XBB, the “first major highly immune-evasive” group of COVID variants, will “sweep over China,” but the wave will be “largely invisible” due to low rates of testing and reporting, Raj Rajnarayanan, assistant dean of research and associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology campus in Jonesboro, Ark., and a leading COVID-variant tracker, told Fortune.
When it comes to XBB variants, “the rest of the world has seen them all.” But so far, “China is not there yet,” he said, adding that the country has a large population at high risk of severe consequences from COVID due to age, immune status, and co-morbid conditions. .
The increased circulation of XBB variants in China—and elsewhere—will likely result in the evolution of new XBB variants, Rajnarayanan said. For now, XBB spawn remains relatively harmless for those who are not at increased risk of serious illness, according to The latest report on the situation of the World Health Organizationreleased Thursday.
‘Come back for a regular check-up’
It remains to be seen whether hospitalizations will rise in China, Rajnarayanan and fellow variant tracker Ryan Gregory—a Canadian biologist who assigns “street names” to so-called “high-flying” variants like XBB .1.5, called “Kraken” -tell Luck.
Hospitalizations can, however, be expected to increase if variants combining XBB prevalence with Delta lung involvement are obtained, in China or elsewhere. The trackers look for variants with mutations in the spike protein that could cause such an event. Currently, such variants are only common in New Zealand and the European Union, Rajnarayanan said.
The evolution of a true XBB-Delta combo is not an inevitability, however, Rajnarayanan said.
And while the virus can pivot at any point, transforming into a more deadly version of itself, so far it hasn’t — and the chance of doing so isn’t particularly great in China. in the rest of the world, where the virus is also spreading unchecked, Dr. Ali Mokdad, a professor at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, told Fortune.
While caution is always needed when it comes to COVID, people everywhere should “go back for regular check-ups, and bring their children in for vaccinations,” Mokdad said.
The COVID precautions “have saved many lives,” he added. “It’s time we get back to normal and make sure it doesn’t come at the expense of other prevention programs.”