A new variant of the Sars-Cov-2 corona virus is spreading at high speed in the USA. A new mutation makes the pathogen even more contagious. What does this development mean for Germany? Three experts explain what we have to prepare for now.

It is currently reported from 29 countries: the Corona variant XBB.1.5. The epidemiologist of the World Health Organization (WHO) Maria van Kerkhove just reported on this. And: It is the most easily transferrable variant that has been discovered so far. That worries the WHO. Because they have the potential to displace other predecessors.

XBB.1.5, a genetic subvariant of omicron, is currently spreading, especially in the USA. The American health authority CDC estimates that a good 40 percent of new infections in the USA in the last week of December were due to the variant.

“We have been monitoring XBB.1.5 since mid-November, and its frequency has doubled approximately every week,” Richard Neher, head of the research group Evolution of Viruses and Bacteria at the Biozentrum of the University of Basel, told the German Press Agency.

There is still a lot of ambiguity about the new variant. It is known that it is characterized by the F486P mutation in the spike protein. This may improve binding to the ACE2 receptor on human cells.

“This means that the new variant XBB.1.5 is also more contagious in addition to the immune escape because it requires a lower infection dose, i.e. fewer viruses, to trigger an infection,” explains virologist Alexander Kekulé in an interview with FOCUS online.

So far, however, there is no evidence that XBB.1.5 leads to more severe disease progression.

So far, the CDC does not see any greater danger from the new corona variant. Although the Covid-related hospitalization rates are currently also increasing in the USA – according to the authority this does not appear to be the case to a greater extent in the regions where XBB.1.5 is widespread. So far, only easier transferability has been assumed.

What does this development mean for Germany? Should we be worried about XBB.1.5 becoming dominant in this country?

“We don’t yet know whether it can spread as well in Europe as it can in the USA given the immunological background. But I would assume that it is. Because it is a descendant of BA.2 and this variant only had a small appearance in Europe. A low level of immunity to XBB.1.5 could therefore contribute to a significant wave of infections in this country. But that cannot be reliably predicted at this point in time,” says Kekulé.

Genome sequencer and cancer researcher Moritz Gerstung also expects the XBB.1.5 variant to spread globally in the coming months, similar to BQ.1.1 and XBB.1 in recent months. “XBB.1.5 could perhaps even displace them, the data from the USA over the next few weeks will be revealing here,” says Gerstung when asked by FOCUS online.

“The jump in growth is more moderate than previous Omicron variants, though, so I wouldn’t expect a heavy wave immediately triggered by XBB.1.5 at this point.”

Gerstung regularly publishes his results on Twitter:

So there is currently no reason to worry about XBB.1.5. The epidemiologist and virologist Klaus Stöhr sees it the same way. He says to FOCUS online: “As with all virus variants, the same applies here: The genetic changes are irrelevant as long as the important properties of the virus do not change at the same time. Above all, these would be the undermining of the immune protection of vaccinations, more severe diseases, other affected age groups and changes in transmission. To date, none of this has been detected in the genetic subvariant of Omicron XBB.1.5.”

The fact that this variant is very likely to take over the infection process is therefore scientifically interesting based on the current information, but irrelevant for combating it.

Alexander Kekulé summarizes the situation in simple words: “From the point of view of ordinary people, this simply means that you can get Corona several times a year.”

The situation is very similar with the other corona viruses that cause normal colds. We get infected with it about every two to three years, depending on how good the immunity is and how much the viruses have changed in the respective year.

The virologist goes on to explain: “With Sars-CoV-2, there are still a lot of infections worldwide, because this pandemic is not over epidemiologically. This means that the intervals between the waves of infection are much shorter because the virus changes faster. What may have taken two or three years with other coronaviruses is now happening in a matter of months. In Europe, too, we must therefore expect in the near future that many of us will experience a corona infection every six to twelve months – until the virus and host have adapted to each other so that the diseases become as rare as with the other corona viruses .”

However, it is usually the case that people who have already had a Covid infection and then become infected with an omicron subvariant can expect an easier course the second time.

“Of course, individual people have a particular risk and unfortunately there are never any guarantees in medicine anyway, but in general one can say: Anyone who has been immunized by an infection or vaccination no longer has to be afraid of these variants,” judges Kekulé.

We really only have to worry about a risk group that has become smaller, i.e. in particular over 80-year-olds and people with chronic previous illnesses. They should receive a booster vaccination after six months at the latest and also protect themselves with FFP2 masks.