Covid variant has ‘potential’ to spark epidemic’s next surge – ‘looming threat’

Since the pandemic began three years ago, the nature of the COVID-19 virus has continued to change. This is because, like many viruses, it continued to mutate into new variants. With each new variant, slightly different dominant symptoms appear, as well as the level of infection.

Scientists first officially discovered the XBB.1.5 variant, or Kraken, in October 2022.

Since then, the Omicron sub-variant has caused a huge spike in cases in the US, spread to other countries and arrived in the UK.

The latest report from the UK Health Agency states that between 20 and 27 February this year, 44 per cent of all Covid cases were associated with the Kraken variant, making it the most dominant of all variants.

Now, a team led by Japanese researchers has managed to characterize the variant, and their results have been published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases.

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In a university release, senior author Professor Kei Sato of the University of Tokyo explained, “Because the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant could spread faster than previous variants and could potentially trigger the next outbreak, we must monitor it carefully to protect public health.”

While studying emerging variants of the Omicron lineage, the team found that the XBB.1.5 variant has a new mutation in the spike (S) protein that facilitates invasion into human cells.

To understand the infectivity, transmissibility, and immune response associated with XBB.1.5, the team ran a series of experiments.

They showed that the relative effective reproduction number (Re) of XBB.1.5 was 1.2 times that of the parent XBB.1.

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This means that a person with the XBB.1.5 variant can infect 1.2 times as many people in the population as a person with the parental XBB.1 variant.

Moreover, the team also realized that, as of December 2022, XBB.1.5 is rapidly replacing BQ.1.1, the predominant lineage in the United States.

Co-author Jumpei Ito said: “Our data indicate that XBB.1.5 will spread rapidly around the world in the near future.”

The team also examined the virological features of XBB.1.5 to determine how closely the new variant’s S protein interacts with the human ACE2 receptor.

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Team member Shigeru Fujita said, “The XBB.1.5 variant binds to the human ACE2 receptor with very high affinity.”

The XBB.1.5 S protein was also found to be highly resistant to neutralizing antibodies caused by breakthrough infection with BA.2/BA.5 subvariants.

In other words, patients with prior infection with BA.2/BA.5 subvariants may not show strong immunity against XBB.1.5, increasing their chances of infection and disease.

Yusuke Kosugi from the research team added: “The results of our virological experiments explain why the Omicron XBB.1.5 variant has higher transmissibility than previous variants:

“This variant has acquired a strong ability to bind to human ACE2 while retaining a higher ability to elude neutralizing antibodies.”

Members of the Genotype to Phenotype Japan Consortium (G2P-Japan) concluded: “The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron XBB.1.5 variant does show increased transmissibility.

“While a few cases have been identified in the Eastern Hemisphere, this could be a looming threat. Urgent preventive measures are needed.”

Symptoms of the Kraken variant are considered “colds” and may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Headache
  • Fatigue (mild or severe)
  • sneezing
  • Sore throat.

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