The rapid spread of a novel new Covid variant around the world is highlighted by a fascinating time-lapse map.
According to World Health Organization officials, XBB.1.5, nicknamed the ‘Kraken’, is the most infectious strain detected since the pandemic began.
It has now been seen in at least 29 countries since its debut in New York in October. It started a surge in cases and has progressed faster than any version since Omicron first hit the world last winter.
Despite being highly contagious, experts insist the strain — a spin-off of Omicron — is just as mild as its ancestor.
Map showing cases of XBB.1.5 detected as of 22 October
Map showing where XBB.1.5 cases were found as of 10 November
Map showing cases of XBB.1.5 detected as of 1 December
Map showing where XBB.1.5 cases were detected as of 29 December
But it has still sparked panic over its mutability and increased transmissibility, which has raised concerns it could fuel a new wave of infections.
Authorities in the UK are said to have face masks, work from home and social distancing guidance ready if pressure, including from Covid patients, leaves the NHS ‘at risk of collapse’.
Surveillance data shows that the strain, a merger of variants BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75, already makes up 75 percent of cases in the most affected parts of the US.
The map, created by Melbourne-based data visualization specialist Mike Haney based on data from the global pathogen database Gicide, shows the UK has recorded 28 cases.
This includes 24 in England, two in Wales and one each in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Virus trackers in the UK say around 4 per cent of new cases, or one in 25, are below XBB.1.5.
But virulent rates are thought to be as high as 50 per cent, according to the Sanger Institute, one of Britain’s largest Covid monitoring centres.
German health chiefs today expressed concern over the strain, which they are monitoring. So far one case has come to light in the country.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said: ‘Hopefully we will get rid of colds before this variant can spread among us.’
The World Health Organization warned yesterday that XBB.1.5 is the ‘most infectious’ strain yet seen in the pandemic.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an epidemiologist and technical lead for the WHO’s COVID response, said: ‘This is because of the mutations that are within this subvariant of omicron that allow this virus to adhere to the cell and replicate more easily. ‘
XBB.1.5 has acquired 14 new mutations in the spike protein of the virus compared to its progenitor strains.
These mutations include F486P, which helps it bypass the antibodies that fight Covid that were produced in response to vaccination or previous infection.
Another change—S486P—is thought to improve its ability to bind to cells.
This, in theory, means that people who have been vaccinated or have previously had an infection may be more susceptible to infection – though not necessarily severe disease.
Antibodies are just one part of the overall immune response to COVID, with other virus-fighting substances such as T-cells playing an important role.
Data from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid monitoring centres, shows that XBB.1.5 was spotted nine times in the week leading up to 17 December. Five cases were seen in the Wirral of Merseyside, where scientists estimate it is behind 50 per cent. of cases. An XBB.1.5 sample was sequenced in Stoke-on-Trent, where 20 per cent of cases are thought to be due to the strain. Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire (11 percent), Tower Hamlets in London (50 percent) and Cornwall (33 percent) all reported a strain caused by the Omicron sub-variant.
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, show that 4 per cent of cases in the week to 17 December were due to XBB.1.5 (shown in purple, lower right corner)
XBB.1.5 was first listed on the institute’s virus dashboard on 17 December, which is updated weekly
Some experts fear its transmissibility, since previous infections and vaccines reduce the risk of severe disease and death, new strains could fuel new waves of infections, inevitably straining health services.
And WHO experts fear that XBB.1.5 could be a gateway to a scarier variant.
The more infections there are, the more opportunities there are for the virus to mutate and evolve.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, told MailOnline that the emergence of the strain is a ‘wakeup call’ and could exacerbate the NHS crisis in the UK.
He added: ‘The XBB.1.5 variant is highly contagious and is increasing hospital admissions in New York, particularly among the elderly.
‘Low immunity, more indoor mixing due to cold weather and lack of other mitigations like wearing facemasks are also contributing to this surge of infections in the US.’
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that most new variants ‘die out within a few weeks’.
However, the sharp increase in the spread of XBB.1.5 is ‘certainly very worrying’ and suggests ‘quite dramatic growth gains and sufficient to drive a new wave of infections’, he said.
But more than nine in 10 Britons with 12 double-jabs, while seven in 10 have a booster. And those most at risk from the virus — such as the elderly and the immunocompromised — have had multiple rounds of boosters.
The graph shows the proportion of cases each week that are caused by each variant, according to monitoring data. It states that the prevalence of XBB.1.5 increased from 22 percent to 41 percent in just one week
U.S. virus hospitalizations increased 40 percent in the month through December 28, from 1.2 to 1.7 admissions per 100,000 people
The latest available figures show that on 21 December the number of people infected with Covid taking beds in wards across England exceeded 8,600. This figure has jumped 29 percent in a week.
On top of this, almost all Britons are believed to have had the virus at some point since the pandemic began – further boosting the immune response.
Additionally, stress does not appear to be associated with more severe disease.
Covid hospitalizations in the US, where the strain is most prevalent, jumped 40 per cent in the month to December 28. But experts said there is no indication that XBB.1.5 is behind the spurt in severe cases.
Dr. Barbara Mahon, director of the CDC’s Division of Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses, told cbs news: ‘We are anticipating that it is going to be the dominant variant in the North East region of the country and it is going to grow in all regions of the country.
‘There is no suggestion at this point that XBB.1.5 is more serious.’
And not all experts are worried.
Professor Eric Topol, a molecular medicine specialist at Scripps Research in California, said the strain doesn’t sound like a ‘scarient’ – his word for worrying versions of the virus.
They told financial Times: ‘This is the real deal and we are betting on our immune wall of infection, vaccinations, boosters and their combinations to help counter its effects.
When it first appeared in November 2021, Omicron was dubbed the most infectious variant ever. A former WHO official said it was as contagious as measles.
It has since split into dozens of sub-variants, most of which have failed or become a cause for concern.
However, BA.2 caused a record number of cases last spring and BA.5 triggered another spike in August, which saw around 17,000 and 14,000 British hospital stays at each peak respectively.
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