According to the World Health Organisation, a new strain of Covid nicknamed ‘The Kraken’ is ‘the most transmissible subvariant detected so far’.
The latest subvariant – another spinoff of Omicron officially named XBB.1.5 – has already taken hold in the US, where it is believed to be behind about 70 percent of the most affected areas and 4 in 10 new infections overall.
Now it’s starting to make a splash across the UK, indicating that it has a major evolutionary advantage over rival strains.
But XBB.1.5 appears to be as light as its progenitor Omicron and its variants.
According to the World Health Organisation, a new strain of Covid nicknamed ‘The Kraken’ is ‘the most transmissible subvariant detected so far’
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid, told a press conference on Wednesday: ‘We are particularly concerned about its growth advantage in some countries in Europe and the Americas’
Concern about XBB.1.5 is largely based on how it is currently growing in the US, but it has already been seen in the UK and other countries around the world.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, WHO’s technical lead for Covid, said at a press conference on Wednesday, ‘We are particularly concerned about its growth advantage in some countries in Europe and the Americas… especially the United States. in the northeastern part of the U.S., where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating variants.
‘Our concern is how contagious it is … and the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it has to mutate.’
Figures from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that stress is behind 41 per cent of cases in the US.
Meanwhile in the UK, data from GISAID and CoVariants.org shows that XBB.1.5 was responsible for just 8 per cent of cases in the two weeks to 2 January.
But the latest figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, show that half of all Covid cases in the most affected areas are behind Xbb.1.5.
Research by the Sanger Institute shows that 50 percent of cases in Viral last week were caused by ‘Kraken’.
XBB.1.5 has also been found in countries including France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Ireland, Australia, Singapore, and India.
Data from GISAID and CoVariants.org shows that XBB.1.5 was responsible for only 8 per cent of cases in the UK in the two weeks to 2 January.
Scientists estimate that XBB.1.5 is responsible for 50 percent of Covid cases in the most affected areas in the UK
NHS hospitals have been ordered to sequence positive swabs from infected travelers from China amid concerns a mutant variant would emerge
Britain’s Health Protection Agency is stepping up its Covid sequencing for hospitalized patients who have traveled from China to the UK, amid concerns a mutant variant will emerge.
China is grappling with the biggest outbreak since the pandemic began, with hospitals and cremation grounds overwhelmed by some estimates as it faces one million cases and 5,000 deaths per day.
The nation has stopped sharing data on daily Covid cases and deaths and is sharing only low-level indexing data.
The UKHSA said that while travel from China to the UK is ‘currently low’, it is ‘likely to increase’ over the next week, as Beijing lifts quarantine requirements for returning travellers.
Available genome data from China and other countries suggests that the Omicron sub-variants tested upon arrival from the country – including those already circulating in Europe – are spreading.
But leaders worry that a rise in cases that escapes the immune response will lead to a new variant – which could ‘pose a threat’.
To stay ahead of the worrying strain, the UKHSA has asked hospitals to report any Covid patient who has traveled to China in the past two weeks, conduct a PCR test and alert laboratories to the case.
In a letter sent by UKHSA’s Chief Medical Adviser Professor Susan Hopkins, the agency’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Thomas Waite and NHS England’s Medical Director Professor Stephen Power, laboratories were told to collect any swabs from UKHSA travelers from China. Send for ‘quick indexing’. ,
Experts are concerned that the rapid evolution of XBB.1.5 may be due to mutations that allow it to better infect people and evade vaccination and protection from prior infection.
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, increased indoor mixing due to cold weather and lack of other measures such as wearing facemasks are also contributing to this surge of infections in the US.’
XBB.1.5 has acquired 14 new mutations in the spike protein of the virus compared to its progenitor strains, which appear to have given it enhanced antibody-resistance.
This means that people who have been vaccinated or who have had an infection in the past are more susceptible to infection – although this does not necessarily lead to severe disease.
But it appears the WHO fears a scarier version of XBB.1.5 is likely to be the gateway.
The more infections there are, the more opportunities there are for the virus to mutate and evolve.
F486P vaccines can make it more resistant to the antibodies brought about by the Covid vaccine.
Some lab tests have indicated it may better avoid jab-induced immunity, although the jury is still out in the real world.
Professor Young said: ‘We don’t know how this variant is going to behave in the UK, in a population that has previously been exposed to other Omicron variants and where over 50 people have had booster shots with a bivalent vaccine .
‘Still, this is a wakeup call – a stark reminder that we cannot become complacent about Covid.
‘The threat of XBB.1.5 and other COVID variants further exacerbating the current NHS crisis reinforces the need for us to be vigilant.’
‘We need to continue to monitor the level of infection with the different forms in the UK, encourage those who are eligible to get their booster shots – why not extend this to the under 50s? – and promote the value of other mitigation measures.’
Not all experts are so worried, however.
The Our World in data graph shows the average number of daily logged Covid cases per million people in the UK (pink) and the US (black). It shows Britain recorded 97 on 27 December, while the US reported 183. However, the figures only reflect positive tests, so underestimate the true scale of infections
Even if the vaccines do not work fully against the variant, immunity is still likely to persist, with most Brits also exposed to the former Omicron variant.
The high level of protection against the virus gave ministers the confidence to drop all Covid measures last year as the country moved to live with the virus.
Dr Simon Clarke, a microbiologist at the University of Reading, told MailOnline that XBB.1.5’s ability to evade immunity has only been seen in the lab.
“So it’s hard to know how this will translate into real life,” he said.
“It does not appear to cause more severe disease than other circulating variants, which are one of the most important metrics to look at when tracking COVID,” he added.
Dr Clarke said: ‘It will be interesting to see how the situation develops over the coming months as the normal annual wave of flu hospitalisations is usually highest in January and February.’
Professor Francois Balloux, an infectious disease specialist based at University College London, told MailOnline: ‘It is not clear whether XBB.1.5 in itself will cause a big wave.’
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