Covid: What is the ‘Kraken’ variant? New case discovered in South Africa

Just as many thought we were reaching the final stages of the Covid pandemic, a new variant has surfaced.

Professor Tim Spector, of King’s College London and founder of the Covid Zoe app, tweeted: “XBB could be the new variant to watch out for in 2023.”

Known as the XBB.1.5 variant, it is a mutated version of Omicron XBB and has accounted for around 40 per cent of Covid cases in the US.

It has been nicknamed “Kraken” and health experts warned about a new Omicron lineage surge last autumn.

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Kraken Covid variant discoverd in South Africa

Recently, a case of the Kraken variant has been discovered in South Africa with local scientists announcing its first identification of the Omicron sub-variant.

This comes after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned of an increase in cases of the variant across some countries.

The discovery came after a team at Stellenbosch University in Cape Town, South Africa identified the variant through gene sequencing from a December 27 sample.

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The sample was one of 97 samples, with South Africa’s health department stating it was studying the report and would announce findings and a way forward after careful scrutiny.

UK-based health experts have warned that up to 9,000 people are dying from Covid a day in China where infections have dramatically risen.

In the US, it has become the dominant variant. WHO officials, speaking at a press conference on January 4, warned it could be the most transmissible variant detected thus far.

So what is this new variant and what are the early symptoms to be aware of?

What is the XXB.1.5 variant?

As a virus replicates, its genes undergo random genetic mutations and, over time, alterations in the virus’s surface proteins or antigens occur and produce variants.

Maria Van Kerkhove, Covid technical lead for WHO, said: “The reason for this is the mutations that are within this subvariant of Omicron, allowing this virus to adhere to the cell and replicate easily.”

She added the new variant has already been found in 29 countries and is likely to be in more than previously thought.

US scientist Eric Topol added that “we’ve not seen such rapid growth of a variant” since the original Omicron emerged almost a year ago.

A virologist at Johns Hopkins University, Andrew Pekosz, added that XBB.1.5 has an additional mutation, making it bind more easily and better to other cells.

“The virus needs to bind tightly to cells to be more efficient at getting in and that could help the virus be a little bit more efficient at infecting people,” he explained.

The new variant has been detected in at least 74 countries, including the UK, China, USA, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Australia - and now South Africa.

Senior epidemiologist in South Africa, Maria van Kerkhove, said the variant is the most transmissible variant detected so far.

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South Africa’s National Department of Health spokesperson Foster Mohale said: “The department has been alerted to the case of a variant of concern called XBB.1.5 and is still gathering information about the case, including the patient’s health condition and travel history, (as well as the) severity, and transmissibility of the case.

“The case was not confirmed at a public health laboratory, which makes it difficult for the department to immediately obtain all relevant information,” Mohale added.

Director-general for the WHO, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said the variant, initially detected in October, was a recombinant of two BA2 sub-lineages detected.

He added these cases were more profound in the US and across Europe, however.

Dr Michelle Groome from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases said: “This subvariant has been found in many other countries. The proportion of XBB.1.5 is increasing and now makes up around 40 per cent of infections.”

Early symptoms of XBB.1.5

Although no official data has come out regarding early infection signs of the new variant, as it is similar to Omicron, many of its early symptoms will be similar.

These include:

  • Scratchy throat

  • Lower back pain

  • Runny nose/congestion

  • Headache

  • Fatigue

  • Sneezing

  • Night sweats

  • Body aches

Fortunately, there’s no suggestion at this point that XBB.1.5 is more severe, according to Dr Barbara Mahon, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses division.

However, according to the NHS, if you suspect you may be infected with Covid, it is imperative to self-isolate and carefully monitor your symptoms.

Is Kraken the dominant strain in the UK?

According to figures from the Sanger Institute in Cambridge for the week ending Saturday, December 17, one in 25 Covid cases in the UK was triggered by XBB. However, that information was based on only nine samples and therefore a larger scale data set is needed to form a better conclusion.

Professor Paul Hunter, a UK specialist in infectious diseases, said it is likely the variant will cause a surge in Covid cases in a couple of weeks’ time.