The rapid spread of an explosive new variant of Covid around the world has been laid bare by a fascinating time-lapse map.
XBB.1.5, nicknamed ‘the Kraken’, is the most transmissible strain detected since the pandemic began, according to the heads of the World Health Organization.
It has now been seen in at least 29 countries after first appearing in New York in October. It triggered a surge in cases and took off faster than any variant since Omicron first swept the world last winter.
Despite being extremely infectious, experts insist that the strain, a derivative of Omicron, is as mild as its ancestors.
The map shows where XBB.1.5 cases were detected on October 22
The map shows where cases of XBB.1.5 were detected on November 10
The map shows where cases of XBB.1.5 were detected on December 1
The map shows where cases of XBB.1.5 were detected on December 29
But it has still sparked panic over its mutations and increased transmissibility, raising concerns it could fuel a new wave of infections.
UK officials are said to have face masks, work from home and social distancing guidance ready to go if pressures, including from Covid patients, leave the NHS ‘at risk of collapse’.
Surveillance data suggests that the strain, a fusion of BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75 variants, already accounts for 75 percent of cases in the hardest-hit parts of the US.
The map, created by Melbourne-based data visualization expert Mike Honey, based on figures from the Gisaid global pathogen database, shows that 28 cases have been recorded in the UK.
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, come down to XBB.1.5.
But rates are thought to be as high as 50 per cent on the Wirral, according to the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s biggest covid surveillance centres.
German health chiefs today expressed concern about the strain, which they are monitoring. So far, one case has been detected in the nation.
Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said: “Hopefully we will get through the winter before such a variant spreads among us.”
The World Health Organization warned yesterday that XBB.1.5 is the “most transmissible” strain ever seen in the pandemic.
Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, epidemiologist and technical lead for WHO’s Covid response, said: “The reason for this is the mutations found within this Omicron subvariant that allow this virus to attach itself to the cell and spread. reply easily.”
XBB.1.5 has acquired 14 new mutations in the virus spike proteins, compared to its ancestral strains.
These mutations include F486P, which helps it evade covid-fighting antibodies that were generated 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 are vaccinated or have had a previous infection may be more susceptible to infection, although not necessarily severe disease.
Antibodies are only one part of the overall immune response to covid, and other virus-fighting substances such as T cells play a vital role.
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, show that XBB.1.5 was detected nine times in the week up to December 17. Five of the cases were detected in the Wirral in Merseyside, where scientists estimate that it is behind 50 per cent. of the cases. An XBB.1.5 sample was sequenced in Stroke-on-Trent, where 20 percent of cases are thought to be caused by the strain. Telford and Wrekin in Shropshire (11 percent), Tower Hamlets in London (50 percent) and Cornwall (33 percent) each reported a strain caused by the Omicron subvariant.
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 December 17 were caused by XBB.1.5 (shown in purple, Lower right corner)
December 17th marked the first time that XBB.1.5 was listed on the institute’s virus panel, which is updated weekly.
Some experts are scared by their contagiousness, as while previous infections and vaccines reduce the risk of severe illness and death, new strains can fuel new waves of infections, inevitably putting pressure on health services.
And WHO experts fear that XBB.1.5 could be the gateway to a scarier variant.
The more infections there are, the more opportunities the virus has to mutate and evolve.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, told MailOnline the emergence of the strain is a “wake-up call” and could exacerbate Britain’s NHS crisis.
He said: ‘The XBB.1.5 variant is highly infectious and is driving an increase in hospital admissions in New York, particularly among the elderly.
“Lower immunity, more indoor mixing due to cold weather, and a lack of other mitigations such as wearing face masks are also contributing to this increase in infections in the US.”
Professor Paul Hunter, an epidemiologist at the University of East Anglia, told MailOnline that most new variants “fizzle out within a few weeks”.
However, the sharp increase in the prevalence of XBB.1.5 is “certainly very worrying” and suggests “a rather dramatic growth advantage and enough to fuel a new wave of infections,” he said.
But nine in 10 Britons aged 12 and over have a double puncture, while seven in 10 have had a booster. And those most at risk from the virus, such as the elderly and the immunocompromised, have received multiple rounds of boosters.
The graph shows the proportion of cases each week caused by each variant, based on surveillance data. Suggests that the prevalence of XBB.1.5 jumped from 22% to 41% in just one week
US virus hospitalizations rose 40 percent in the month to December 28, from 1.2 to 1.7 admissions per 100,000 people.
The number of covid-infected people occupying ward beds across England surpassed 8,600 on December 21, the latest available data shows. The figure has risen 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 increasing the immune response.
Also, the strain does not appear to be linked to more serious illness.
Covid hospitalizations in the US, where the strain is most prevalent, rose 40 percent in the month to December 28. But experts said there is no indication that XBB.1.5 is behind the rise in severe cases.
Dr. Barbara Mahon, director of the CDC’s Division of Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses, said CBS News: ‘We are projecting that it will be the dominant variant in the northeast region of the country and that it will increase in all regions of the country.
“There is no suggestion at this time that XBB.1.5 is more serious.”
And not all experts are worried.
Professor Eric Topol, a molecular medicine expert at Scripps Research in California, said the strain did not seem “scary”, his term for worrisome versions of the virus.
told the financial times: ‘This is the real deal and we are betting on our wall of immunity from infections, vaccines, boosters and their combinations to help withstand its impact.
Omicron was labeled the most contagious variant ever when it first appeared in November 2021. A former WHO official said it was as contagious as measles.
Since then, it has splintered into dozens of subvariants, most of which have fizzled out or caused no concern.
However, BA.2 caused record cases last spring and BA.5 triggered another spike in August, with around 17,000 and 14,000 Britons in hospital at each peak, respectively.
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