Health officials have warned that the XBB1.5 sublineage of Omicron, which has been dubbed the Kraken variant, could become the dominant strain in the UK. A technical briefing released by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) warned that the mutant form of Omicron, which the World Wealth Organisation has said is the “most transmissible” subvariant yet, threatens to spread almost 40 percent quicker than the UK’s current dominant strain.
It reportedly saw a weekly growth advantage of 38.9 percent when compared to the currently dominant BQ1.1 subvariant of the Omicron stain, which is responsible for around half of all cases of COVID-19 in the UK.
The UKHSA said: “The growth advantage associated with XBB.1.5 is biologically plausible given the combination of immune escape properties and ACE-2 affinity that are expected based on available laboratory data.”
It also said that along with another variant known as CH.1.1, these are the “currently the variants most likely to predominate in the UK following BQ.1”, adding that it is “plausible that XBB.1.5 will cause an increase in incidence after the current wave. However, it is currently too early to confirm this trajectory.”
While a number of Omicron subvariants and many other strains of Covid have emerged since the start of the pandemic, XBB1.5 is the only one to been dubbed the Kraken variant on social media, although this has no scientific relevance or validity.
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Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk about XBB1.5, Dr Stephen Griffin from the Leeds Institute of Medical Research, said: “This is indeed a variant of concern, more so than other recent Omicron viruses from the BA2 ancestral lineage.
Dr Griffin added: “This is mainly because of the F486P mutation which causes both increased antibody evasiveness as well as heightened interactions with the ACE2 protein.
“Thus, the virus is not only better at infecting per se, it is better at evading our defences when doing so. This gives it a big advantage over its predecessors (mainly BQ1.1), as we are seeing in the US and now here.”
It is important to note that XBB.1.5 is now formally recognised as a variant by the UKHSA, it has not yet classed it as a variant of concern.
The emergence of the new subvariant comes as the UK is already grappling with the biggest challenge it has ever faced as the NHS suffers from a crisis in emergency care coupled with industrial strikes. It has come partly as a result of Covid, flu and Scarlet fever cases surging, causing increased admissions to hospital. Dr Griffin warned that an outbreak of XBB1.5 could make matters worse.
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He said: “This could mean that we see a more rapid expansion of yet another wave of infection compared to what we would have otherwise had, as there may be many more people that are more susceptible to infection with this virus – much like we have seen with influenza.
“More infections will necessarily lead to more severe disease, as well as adding to the dreadful toll of long COVID, which can happen following even a mild disease course.
Whether this virus is also inherently more virulent on a case by case basis remains to be seen, and can be difficult to immediately tease out in highly vaccinated populations like the US and the UK.
“Nevertheless, we can expect this new subvariant to take its toll on an already exhausted NHS, and to cause yet more concern for clinically vulnerable people who remain hostages to the lack of control of viral prevalence which results from the “living with” policy. Indeed, that same prevalence and resultant viral diversity is the main driver for the next variant later down the road.”
The UKHSA only sequences a low number of all Covid tests in Britain, so far only confirming just 161 known cases of XBB.1.5, with 136 of those in England.
However, the officials noted that as this is an early-stage analysis and of only a small number of tests, estimates are subject to change and are not definitive.
Dr Meera Chand, the UKHSA director of clinical and emerging infections, said: “Through our genomic surveillance, we continue to see evolution of variants in the omicron family. UKHSA is constantly monitoring the situation and working to understand the implications for public health.
“Vaccination remains our best defence against future Covid-19 waves, so it is still as important as ever that people come take up all the doses for which they are eligible as soon as possible.”