For months, a purported warning has spread on social media about an alleged "new COVID-Omicron XBB variant" — a new strain of the coronavirus that has spread globally since early 2020.
Framed as official guidance from health officials, the message makes many claims about symptoms and impacts of the variant, including that it is supposedly "five times more toxic" than the coronavirus' Delta variant and has a higher mortality rate.
Users on platforms such as Facebook, TikTok, LinkedIn, YouTube, and X (formerly Twitter) shared the message. Most posts were copied and pasted nearly word for word. (Snopes calls those types of messages "copypasta.")
The message was not actually authored by an official public health organization, and much of its information about XBB — a real variant of SARS-CoV, the virus that causes COVID-19 — was misleading or outdated at the time of this writing. In this article, we'll break down what the copypasta message claims, what readers should consider if they come across it online, and what is known about new COVID-19 variants.
What the Viral 'Advisory' Says
With the possibility of some slight wording variations from one post to the next, the viral copypasta message generally read:
New Covid Health Advisory:
Everyone is advised to wear a mask because the new COVID-Omicron XBB variant coronavirus is different, deadly, and not easily detected properly:-
Symptoms of the XBB virus are as follows:
1. No cough.
2. No fever.
There will only be:
3. Joint pain.
5. Neck pain.
6. Upper back pain.
8. General loss of appetite.
XBB is 5 times more toxic than Delta variant and has a higher mortality rate. It takes a shorter time for the condition to reach extreme severity, and sometimes, there are no obvious symptoms.
This strain of the virus is not found in the nasopharyngeal region, and it directly affects the lungs, the "windows," for a relatively short period of time. Nasal swab tests are generally negative for COVID-Omicron XBB, and false-negative cases of nasopharyngeal tests are increasing. This means the virus can spread in the community and directly infect lungs, leading to viral pneumonia, which in turn causes acute respiratory stress.
XBB has become highly contagious, highly virulent, and lethal. Avoid crowded places, keep a distance of 1.5m even in open spaces, wear a double-layer mask, wear a suitable mask, and wash hands frequently even when everyone is asymptomatic (no coughing or sneezing).
Don't keep this information to yourself. Share as much as possible with other relatives and friends.
In other words, the copypasta purported to warn the average person about a "new" COVID-19 strain — saying it caused symptoms such as pain in various parts of the body and pneumonia; made people feel sicker faster, and was challenging to detect with COVID-19 tests that use nasal swabs, among other things. The message also encouraged readers to share the alleged advisory "as much as possible" — thus, explaining why it appeared on various platforms and remained viral for months.
Other than calling the in-question strain a "new COVID-Omicron XBB variant coronavirus," the viral message did not specify its name. But, based on timing, it's reasonable to infer the text was referring to a subvariant of the Omicron variant — what scientists called XBB.1.5. (COVID-19 variants such as Omicron or Delta form by mutations to the viral strain's genetic code, according to The Conversation. Meanwhile, subvariants are slightly mutated forms of those variants — though they're not distinct enough to create a whole new variant category.)
How did we make that conclusion? The copypasta message has circulated online since at least October 2022, based on our research. In that same month, scientists identified the new subvariant, XBB.1.5, according to Yale Medicine. In the following months, that subvariant spread widely; it was the most dominant strain of COVID-19 throughout 2023 until a different version of the virus became more prevalent in August 2023 (more on that later).
Any Truth to the Message?
In general, most information in the copypasta was slightly incorrect or misleading.
Reputable news organizations such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse (AFP) debunked the message's claims in November 2022 and January 2023, respectively. (AFP's report analyzed the text as if it was talking about XBB or XBB.1.5, while Reuters only mentioned the variant XBB.)
Those reports specifically rejected the claim that the in-question strain has a higher mortality rate and is five times "more toxic" than the Delta variant. AFP wrote:
Dr. Thira Woratanarat, associate professor of preventive medicine at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, told AFP on January 18: 'No changes in clinical severity was observed.' He pointed to a preprint study from January 6 that looked at Omicron infections in India, concluding: 'The current study indicates that the XBB variant is causing mild disease in India.'
The message claimed the strain can cause joint pain, headaches, neck pain, upper back pain, pneumonia, and a general loss of appetite. Some of those symptoms are real reported effects of the XBB variant, or the XBB.1.5 subvariant.
However, another piece of the message about symptoms was false. For example, the American Medical Association (AMA) wrote in February 2023 that a cough and fever can be symptoms of the XBB.1.5 subvariant — while the copypasta message claimed that wasn't the case. (According to the AMA, other symptoms can include congestion, shortness of breath, low oxygen levels, chills, fatigue, muscle or body aches, sore throat, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea.)
The message's claim about the in-question strain's detectability possibly had some truth to it, too. As Vox wrote in January 2023, XBB.1.5 was believed to be harder to detect than other strains of COVID-19. However, the New York Times reported that same month there was no reason to think that rapid COVID-19 tests wouldn't effectively detect subvariants like XBB.1.5.
Who Wrote the Message?
Slightly altered versions of the message cited different agencies as purported sources for its claims.
For example, one version attributed the information to CNN. However, a January 2022 report from that news organization said the Omicron variant caused less severe disease than its predecessor, the Delta subvariant — directly contradicting the copypasta. There was no evidence any credible news outlet, including CNN, authored the passage.
Other versions claimed the information came from an official organization that provides public health recommendations, such as the United Nations or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Those alleged attributions also weren't factual.
The U.N. told journalists the warning was fake. AFP reported:
A representative for 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 spokesperson told AFP on January 10.
Additionally, Snopes reached out to the CDC for its comment on the viral message erroneously attributed to it. When we reached out, the agency only redirected us to a risk assessment summary for a different strain of COVID-19, BA.2.86. It didn't directly discuss the viral post, or say it was a fake warning.
While we know the message did not come from a credible source, it was unknown who, or what, actually wrote it. If we learn that information at a later date, we will update this report.
What COVID Strains Are Circulating?
At the time of this writing, the XBB.1.5 subvariant of Omicron was still circulating. However, the largest proportion of COVID-19 infections in the U.S. were coming from a different version of the virus — what scientists called the "EG.5 subvariant."
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), EG.5 had the "fastest growth" in infections across several WHO regions in August 2023, including the Americas. That said, there were no reported changes in the severity of how the strain impacted people compared to other notable variants.
In addition to EG.5, scientists were keeping an eye on another strain: BA. 2.86. While only a few cases of BA. 2.86 had been reported worldwide, as of this writing, the subvariant had the attention of scientists because of its high level of mutations compared to the original SARS-CoV virus. (In the CDC's response to Snopes for this report, the agency sent a risk assessment summary comparing BA. 2.86 with XBB.1.5.)
Manufactured by Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax, another round of vaccine boosters were expected to be available to the public in fall 2023, CBS News reported. According to The Washington Post, the booster's formula was created to target the XBB subvariants and should also be effective against the EG.5 subvariant. Additionally, a health official said the formula should work against BA. 2.86, though testing was still underway, the publication reported.
To protect yourself against the virus in August 2023, the CDC recommends the following (per an email to Snopes from a spokesperson):
CDC continues to recommend that all people — passengers and transportation workers, alike — are up to date on their COVID-19 vaccines before they travel and take steps to protect yourself and others. Anyone may choose to wear a mask in crowded or poorly ventilated indoor areas, including on public transportation and in transportation hubs at any time.
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AFP Sri Lanka, AFP Malaysia. "Fabricated 'UN Warning' Rehashes Misleading Claims about Covid XBB Subvariant." AFP Fact-Check, 20 Jan. 2023, https://factcheck.afp.com/doc.afp.com.336U7ND.
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