COVID-19: New Variants in 2023
Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team
Overview: what strain of COVID is going around in 2023?
- New variants of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, will continue to occur through mutations.
- The new COVID-19 variants can bind more quickly to cells, making them more transmissible.
- Symptoms of the new variants are similar to previous Omicron variants.
- Currently, there are over 26 variants of the original COVID-19 strain.
COVID-19 has significantly impacted the world since its outbreak in 2019. Although vaccines have been developed and distributed globally, the virus continues to mutate, posing a challenge to public health officials worldwide. In 2023, the world is still grappling with the pandemic. That’s because viruses and pathogens constantly adapt and change. This article explains the dominant variants of COVID-19 in 2023, their symptoms, and who is at risk.
What are the dominant COVID-19 variants in 2023?
Since February 2022, 98% of the variants in circulation have stemmed from the Omicron strain. 1
Since its emergence, the Omicron variant has constantly changed its genetic and antigenic properties. Omicron has been able to evade the immune response generated by previous infections or vaccinations, meaning that people can still become infected despite having some level of immunity. Additionally, this variant has a higher tendency to infect the upper respiratory tract (e.g., the nose and throat) compared to previous variants like Delta, which tend to infect the lower respiratory tract (e.g., the lungs).
Find out more about Omicron vs. Delta variant symptoms in this article.
As of May 2023, the dominant variant of COVID-19 is XBB.1.5, nicknamed Kraken, It accounts for 68.8% of cases in the US and 45.4% worldwide. The second most prevalent variant is XBB 1.16, nicknamed Arcturus. As of May, Arcturus accounted for 11.7% of the cases in the US and 4.3% worldwide. 3 4
Scientists state that both Kraken and Arcturus can bind more easily to cells, which enhances their transmissibility, enabling them to infect individuals who have already been vaccinated or previously infected. This elevates the risk of reinfection or breakthrough infections. 5
What are the symptoms of the dominant COVID-19 variants in 2023?
There’s no evidence yet to suggest that people infected with any new variants experience more severe symptoms than we’ve seen with previous Omicron variants. The most common symptoms still include a mild runny nose, headache, and sore throat.
Observational data suggests that people infected with XBB.1.16 may be more likely to experience conjunctivitis, or pink eye, as a symptom of their COVID-19 infection. 6 These symptoms could precede a positive COVID-19 test, and symptoms could be mild or moderate for the duration of the illness.
How many strains of COVID-19 are there in 2023?
There are many different strains of the virus present in 2023. That’s because as a virus spreads, it has a chance to change. As genetic changes happen over time, the virus that causes COVID-19 begins to form genetic lineages. The SARS-CoV-2 virus can be mapped out similarly to a family tree.
4 years into the virus, there are now over 26 variants of the original COVID-19 strain. 3 To prioritize resources and monitoring, the World Health Organization categorizes strains as variants in 3 categories: variants of concern (VOC), variants of interest (VOI) and variants under monitoring (VUM).
WHO Variant Category
Variants of Concern
A variant of SARS-CoV-2 that satisfies the VOI definition (as defined below), and is evaluated through a risk assessment conducted by WHO TAG-VE, may be classified as a VOI with moderate or high confidence if it meets any of the following criteria when compared to other variants:
Variants of Interest
A variant of SARS-CoV-2 is considered to pose an emerging risk to global public health if it meets the following conditions:
Variants Under Monitoring
A SARS-CoV-2 variant that is suspected of having genetic changes impacting virus characteristics and is displaying early signals of growth advantage when compared to other circulating variants. For example, globally or in a specific WHO region. Thus, it's deemed to require enhanced monitoring and reassessment pending new evidence. Although evidence of its phenotypic or epidemiological impact is currently unclear, its potential implications necessitate constant surveillance to determine its actual impact.
What is the latest COVID-19 variant?
The XBB.1.16 COVID-19 subvariant Arcturus has been gaining momentum globally, particularly in India and the United States. The strain was initially identified in January 2023 but was named a VOI on 17 April.
XB.1.16, also known as Arcturus, shares similarities with XBB.1.5 but may pose a higher risk due to its potential to spread easier.
Is there a test that tells the variant?
Multiple tests can detect the COVID-19 virus, but not all can differentiate between the variants. To accurately determine the variant of COVID-19, you must undergo a laboratory test that identifies the virus's genetic sequence. This is usually a PCR or sequencing test and requires a sample of respiratory material from a nasal or throat swab. The sample is sent to a laboratory, where technicians conduct the necessary tests to identify the virus’s genetic sequence and determine the specific variant of COVID-19 present. These tests can provide valuable information for public health officials to monitor the spread of different variants.
Additionally, false negative results are possible with any molecular test used to detect SARS-CoV-2, especially if a mutation occurs in the part of the virus' genome that the test examines. Mutations in the viral genome can also affect viral proteins, and consequently, the performance of antigen or serology tests may also be impacted. 9
What groups are at risk with the new COVID-19 variants?
In 2023, the high-risk groups for COVID-19 remain the same as in previous years. These include the elderly, individuals with underlying health conditions, and those with compromised immune systems. However, younger individuals may also be at risk, particularly if they’re unvaccinated or have underlying health conditions.
The best thing people can do to protect themselves against new variants is to be vaccinated and boosted. In particular, those who are at high risk, as well as those who have not had a booster shot or a COVID-19 infection in the last 4 to 6 months, should make a plan to get a shot.
How might symptoms change in the future?
As COVID-19 continues to mutate, the symptoms may change in the future. For example, when Omicron emerged, patients reported eye symptoms, such as conjunctivitis and red and burning eyes. This symptom was not often seen in prior strains of the virus.
It’s possible that new variants may cause more severe symptoms or affect different parts of the body. However, it’s difficult to predict exactly how symptoms may change as the virus mutates in 2023 and beyond.
Wrapping it Up
COVID-19 remains a global health concern in 2023, with the XBB.1.5 variant remaining the dominant strain. The symptoms of the XBB.1.5 variant are similar to previous strains. High-risk groups for COVID-19 stay the same as in last years, and it's essential to continue to take preventative measures, such as vaccinations and mask-wearing when in large crowds.
Q: Will the current vaccine protect me against the 2023 COVID-19 variants?
A: The bivalent booster can train your immune system to identify both the initial 2020 virus strain and the new BA.5 Omicron variant. While the effectiveness of the antibodies from the bivalent shot against the XBB.1.5 variant is yet to be determined, the T cell immunity provided by the booster should still offer protection against severe illness in case of infection.
Q: What is the new COVID-19 variant?
A: The XBB.1.16 subvariant of COVID-19, also known as Arcturus, is the latest COVID variant of interest. It’s a subvariant of the highly contagious Omicron variant.
Q: How can you tell which strain of COVID-19 you have?
A: The only way to accurately determine which strain of COVID-19 you have is through a laboratory test that explicitly identifies the virus’s genetic sequence. This is typically done through a diagnostic test known as a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) or a sequencing test. These tests are usually conducted on a sample of respiratory material, such as a nasal or throat swab. Once the sample is collected, it’s sent to a laboratory where technicians will conduct the appropriate tests to determine the genetic sequence of the virus and identify the specific strain of COVID-19 present.
Q: Why are there so many variants of COVID-19?
A: As viruses replicate and spread among a population, they undergo mutations or changes. RNA-based viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2 virus responsible for COVID-19 and influenza, mutate more frequently than DNA-based viruses. Whenever the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates, there’s a chance for it to change. However, not all mutations affect the virus's ability to spread or cause disease because they do not alter the crucial proteins involved in transmission and infection.
Q: When is the new COVID-19 variant most contagious?
A: Individuals are believed to be most contagious at the beginning of their illness. For Omicron, most transmission seems to occur in the 1-2 days leading up to the onset of symptoms and within the 2-3 days after. Additionally, people without any symptoms can also spread the coronavirus to others.
Q: Where is the new COVID-19 variant spreading?
A: The XBB.1.16 subvariant of COVID-19, also known as Arcturus, has been found in at least 37 countries as of 27 April, causing a surge in COVID-19 cases in Southeast Asia. It's also gaining prevalence in the US, Australia, Singapore, Libya, Iran, Kuwait, and Qatar.