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Months after Canada began loosening its public health restrictions for COVID-19, a subvariant of Omicron named XBB.1.5, informally referred to as “Kraken,” has been discovered.
The Omicron variant of COVID-19 caused global concern in late 2021 when scientists discovered it was more transmissible than previous variants of the virus. XBB.1.5 is an evolution of the Omicron variant, demonstrating that the virus is continuing to create new strains.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that this strain of COVID-19 is the most transmissible yet. According to the CDC, XBB.1.5 is projected to comprise 70 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in northeastern U.S.
According to the WHO, XBB.1.5 has been discovered in 38 countries. Australia, Asia and parts of Europe are a few places where the subvariant has been found.
Canada has also seen a rise in cases of XBB.1.5, with cases doubling from 21 to 42 over the course of a week. Cases are expected to rise due to a delay in reporting COVID-19 cases over the holiday season.
As of writing, there is no evidence to suggest that XBB.1.5 causes more severe sickness than previous Omicron subvariants. Currently, researchers are most concerned about how contagious the virus is. Healthcare professionals worry that even if XBB.1.5 is no more deadly than previous variants, mass outbreaks could result in hospitals being filled beyond capacity.
This is an especially bad time for a potential influx of patients for the healthcare industry. The rates of respiratory illnesses are seemingly high this winter. For example, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) was sending children to hospitals in swarms as early as November.
XBB.1.5 is a recombinant, which means it contains genetic material from unique COVID-19 subvariants. This mixing process could occur within a person who simultaneously contains the variants in question or when the two meet in wastewater.
One other concern that has emerged around XBB.1.5 is its potentially higher levels of immune evasion when compared to other variants, which means that this strain is less likely to be neutralized by antibodies in those who have received the COVID-19 vaccine or have previously held the virus. This was detailed by a recent study describing all of the newly discovered XBB variants (although XBB.1.5 seems to be the one of highest concern).
The WHO has responded to the fast spread of XBB.1.5 by recommending that airline passengers wear masks on flights. This does not mean that WHO is advocating for passenger testing at this time, they added.
According to a report, experts on infectious diseases believe that vaccine inequality is to blame for the continued creation and spread of new strains of COVID-19. These experts believe that the lack of access to vaccines in certain parts of the world causes those regions to continue producing new variants that could spread across the world.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has stated that remaining updated on vaccinations is the best method to reduce the rates of COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths.
PHAC has not yet publicly stated whether or not XBB.1.5 should be considered a variant of concern.