The United Nations has rebuked a fabricated statement attributed to the agency warning that the sub-variant of the Omicron XBB coronavirus is “deadlier” than the Delta strain. Health experts say that while the subvariant is highly transmissible, evidence available as of January 2023 showed that neither the XBB subvariant nor the more recent XBB.1.5 subvariant causes more serious illness or death than Delta. UKTN has previously debunked misinformation about XBB.
The fabricated warning was shared in a Sinhalese Facebook post on January 9.
“XBB variant”, it says. “Note the details below.”
The XBB Omicron subvariant was first identified in India in August. A subline of XBB – dubbed XBB.1.5 – was discovered in the United States two months later and is believed to be the most transmissible Covid strain to date.
It is not clear which of these sub-variants the post refers to.
The post claims that XBB “contains five times more viral load than the Delta variant and thus carries a higher fatality rate.”
The Delta variant was first discovered in October 2020 and has since been overtaken by the more transmissible Omicron variant as the world’s dominant Covid strain.
“It won’t take long for serious symptoms to manifest,” the post adds, with symptoms including body aches, headaches, neck pain, upper back pain, pneumonia, and loss of appetite — but “no cough or fever.”
The message ends with the words: “A message from the United Nations”.
Screenshot of the deceptive Facebook post, taken on January 10, 2023
The same message circulated in Facebook groups in Sri Lanka, including here and here.
A representative from the United Nations office in Sri Lanka said the warning was fake.
“The UN office in Sri Lanka has not issued any such statement or letter,” the spokesman told UKTN on January 10.
As of January 20, there was no trace of the statement on the UN’s official Facebook and Twitter accounts.
UKTN previously debunked an almost identical message circulating on Facebook in November when the XBB variant drove up Covid cases in Singapore.
At the time, health experts said there was no evidence that the XBB variant was “more deadly” than the Delta variant.
The World Health Organization said in a statement Oct. 27: “While further studies are needed, current data do not suggest that there are substantial differences in disease severity for XBB infections.”
Singapore’s Ministry of Health also refuted the claim in an October 11 statement, saying there was “no evidence that XBB caused more serious illness”.
“Until now, the vast majority of patients continue to report mild symptoms such as sore throat or mild fever, especially if they have been vaccinated.”
Health experts said the messages circulating in January 2023 were still misleading.
“There is no evidence that the XBB variant is more deadly than the other variants,” said a representative for Sri Lanka’s Health Promotion Bureau told UKTN on Jan. 10.
A spokesman for the World Health Organization (WHO) in Sri Lanka told UKTN on Jan. 10 that the agency had not issued statements that XBB was more deadly than Delta.
The WHO said in a rapid risk assessment on Jan. 11 that the XBB.1.15 subvariant “does not contain any mutation known to be associated with a potential change in severity,” though it stressed that “severity assessments are ongoing.”
Dr. Thira Woratanarat, an associate professor of preventive medicine at Thailand’s Chulalongkorn University, told UKTN on Jan. 18: “No changes in clinical severity were observed.”
He pointed to a Jan. 6 preprint study that looked at Omicron infections in India and concluded, “The current study indicates that the XBB variant causes mild disease in India.”
Ian Jones, a professor of virology at Reading University in the UK, said he had not seen any evidence that XBB.1.5 symptoms were “significantly different” from those associated with previous variants.
“At least it seems to be milder and doesn’t have the older features of infection, such as loss of taste and smell,” he told UKTN on Jan. 17.
A study published in the journal Cell on Dec. 13 said that while new Covid subvariants could spark a wave of breakthrough infections, Covid-19 vaccines have been shown to “remain effective in preventing hospitalization and serious illness, even against Omicron.”