How worried should we be about the new COVID variant XE?

Here’s what experts know about it so far.

Maxine McCrann
The Pandemic

New COVID variants are like iPhone software updates: They all seem super similar, and most of us don’t keep up with them anymore. So in case you didn’t get the memo, there’s a potentially concerning new variant, Omicron XE, which some fear might be the most contagious mutation we’ve seen so far.

XE, which was first discovered in the U.K., appears to be a combination of the BA.1 and BA.2 strains of Omicron that have been spreading through much of the world. This sounds absolutely terrifying, and some experts are worried that XE might be the most easily transmissible of any of the COVID variants — so far, the data suggests it could be up to 10% more contagious than BA.2, per Bloomberg. Luckily, only 637 people in the U.K. have been knowingly infected and there’s no evidence that the variant is deadlier than any existing version of Omicron. Still, we’re eyeing China’s massive lockdowns and wondering whether XE has the potential to bring us back into some form of quarantine.

As of now, most experts agree that it’s too soon to panic. When two strains of a virus combine in our bodies and exchange genetic material, the result is called a “recombinant variant,” which are common and often peter out on their own, per ABC. In fact, there’s already been four other recombinant COVID variants, none of which have been different enough to evade immunity from vaccinations.

“I have not seen anything suggesting that it is more virulent, so we don't anticipate an individual being ‘sicker’ because of this variant,” David J. Cennimo, an infectious disease expert and Associate Professor at Rutgers Medical School, tells me. “My guess is that it will be equivalent to the other Omicrons, meaning people who are fully vaccinated have strong protection from severe illness.”

That’s great news for all of us who are fully jabbed and boosted. Unfortunately, nearly one in four American adults are still unvaccinated, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, which means that a variant as contagious as XE could spread quickly among that population.

The bottom line is that we don’t know enough about XE right now to draw many definitive conclusions, and the variant is not being monitored nearly as closely as BA.2, which has already pushed some countries like China back into lockdowns. At the same time, it’s important to stay up-to-date and as informed as possible whenever a new mutation or variant is discovered, because we all know by now that things can change in an instant.

The good news: Because of herd immunity from vaccines and previous COVID waves that ripped through the American population, we seem pretty well-equipped to handle XE. “I think it is something that should be watched but not to invoke worry,” Cennimo tells me. “That said, higher risk individuals are now eligible for a second booster and can certainly take advantage of that to increase their potential for protection from this infection.”