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Don’t believe warning about ‘different and deadly’ coronavirus ‘XBB variant’ – old false story circulating again

IN SHORT: As South Africa prepares for its annual influenza season, posts from April 2024 warn of a more dangerous new form of coronavirus spreading in the country. But XBB has largely come and gone, without evidence of the strain being more deadly. This message first circulated years ago when it was refuted by the Department of Health.

A claim circulating on Whatsapp and other platforms in South Africa in April 2024 warns the public about a “new Covid-Omicron variant” that is “different” and “deadly”, with a “higher death rate than the Delta variant”.  

A reader asked us to look into the post, which has primarily been circulating on Whatsapp. It has also appeared elsewhere, like here, here, here, and here, on X, formerly Twitter, along with shortened versions here and here. It’s also on Facebook here, here, here, here, here and here, and even on LinkedIn, here

The national Department of Health posted a warning on 28 April, saying “this is old fake news that first surfaced during the peak of the pandemic”. An internet search yields fact-checks debunking this information in 2022, including from Reuters here, AFP here, and others in 2023, here, here and here. It was reported on in the news here

The claim has resurfaced in April 2024 despite this widespread coverage. This comes as South Africa prepares for flu season, which peaks annually in winter and is caused by various influenza viruses.

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XBB not new, not more dangerous

XBB is not a variant of Covid-19, but rather part of a sublineage descended from the Omicron variant, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It was first identified in late 2022, along with iterations like XBB 1.5, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) said. This and other related forms were subsequently detected in South African samples.

The NICD published an update on the variant in early 2023, saying “no changes to the public health response [were] required” in response to the new “sublineage” of the Omicron variant.

In June 2023, the WHO published a risk assessment concluding that XBB and its descendents did not have “any differences in clinical severity” compared to other Omicron lineages, according to data from India. 

The same assessment reported that an analysis from the US suggested there was “no difference in the number of deaths per hospital admissions” in patients infected with XBB 1.5 compared to other circulating Omicron lineages. And Omicron itself had a far lower death rate, compared to the original Delta variant of the virus. 

The WHO concluded, with high levels of confidence, that the level of risk was “low”.

Covid and flu – the situation in South Africa

In April 2024 the WHO reported that the JN 1 variant was the most prevalent type of coronavirus in the available data, accounting for over 94% of samples studied.

The Times reported on 24 April that Prof Cheryl Cohen from the NICD said high levels of respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) had recently been detected in the country. She said this was “typical” for April, which was the start of flu season. 

Cohen said that Covid-19 “continues to circulate at low levels” in the country, but that there was no evidence of “a new strain or one which is more severe”. However, cases of flu were expected to increase in the coming weeks.

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