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January 11, 2023

COVID-19: Fresh concerns as new ‘Kraken variant’ emerges

Third-wave: Nigeria at high risk of surge in COVID cases ― NCDC Boss

•WHO says ‘most transmissible’ mutating strain could fuel another wave of infections

We are monitoring situation — NCDC

By Sola Ogundipe

The emergence of a new COVID-19 variant known as XBB.1.5 has raised fresh concerns over what may become a potentially deadly new wave of the pandemic.

Nicknamed the  “Kraken variant”, because of its ability to spread rapidly, the new variant is reputed to be the most transmissible sub-variant detected so far, even as the World Health Organisation, WHO announced an increase in cases of an Omicron sub-variant across numerous countries.

According to the WHO, the XBB.1.5 variant has already been identified in at least 30 countries including China and South Africa and is now dominant in the United States of America.

But in a statement, the  Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, NCDC, assured that there was no need to panic over the ‘Kraken’ Covid-19 variant.

The Agency said it was monitoring the situation and would announce findings as they developed.

According to the WHO Director-General, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the variant, initially detected in October 2022, was a recombinant of two BA2 sub-lineages detected especially across Europe and the US.

Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated the XBB and XBB.1.5 sub-variants accounted for 44.1 percent of Covid-19 cases in the US in the week of December 31, up from 25.9 percent the previous week.

He said that the WHO was following developments closely and assessing the risk of the sub-variant.

Dubbed “The Kraken”, new Covid XBB.1.5 variant has been recorded in the UK. This Omicron sub-variant has been driving up cases in the US, with experts saying it’s the one to watch. The Kraken is currently thought to trigger symptoms similar to previous Omicron strains.

Health experts and scientists are now monitoring the new sub-variant in order to determine whether it gives dominance to certain symptoms.

Essentially, the symptoms of XBB.1.5 are different from those caused by other Omicron sub-variants.

According to the WHO,  The Kraken variant is a descendant of the omicron XBB subvariant — which is a cross between two earlier strains: BA.2.75 and BA.2.10.1.

Although accounting for just 1 percent of all Covid cases at the start of December, the WHO warns that it is surging and spreading to become the dominant strain in places.

The WHO Director-General said that although clinical care management, vaccines, and treatments have put COVID infections on the decline,  the threat persists.

“Major inequalities in access to testing, treatment, and vaccination continue. Every week, approximately 10,000 people die of COVID-19. The true toll is likely much higher.

“The current COVID-19 epidemiological picture is troubling. There is intense transmission and pressure on health systems, particularly in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, and a recombinant sub-variant spreading quickly.”

In the views of WHO’s Covid-19 technical lead, Maria Van Kerkhove,” XBB.1.5  is “the most transmissible sub-variant which has been detected yet.”

Although WHO assured that the proportion of infections caused by XBB.1.5 has remained low, it cautioned that the picture may rapidly change.

Scientists say that the sub-variant has a much stronger affinity to ACE2, a key receptor for the virus, which allows it to bind more easily and boosts its transmissibility.

The new virus is largely attracting attention because it is exhibiting signs of immunity escape, meaning that it has the ability to evade natural immunity or previous protection provided by vaccines, and can re-infect people that have recovered from earlier bouts of Covid.

Also responding to the development, the Director-General of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, NCDC, Dr Ifedayo Adetifa, said that even though the Kraken sub-variant had not been detected in Nigeria, the country was alert.

We are monitoring situation – NCDC

Giving an update on COVID-19 Genomic Surveillance in the country, he said the NCDC-led COVID-19 Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) is monitoring COVID-19 trends in China, the United States of America, the United Kingdom, South Africa, India, and other countries with a high volume of traffic to and from Nigeria.

Adetifa noted that the rise in the new Omicron sub-lineages XBB.1.5 in the UK and the US, and BF.7 in China raises concern as it may spread faster than older Omicron sub-lineages and that they are responsible in part for current increases in cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.

According to him, the dominant strain in Nigeria since the detection of the Omicron variant in December 2021, is its sub-lineage BQ.1/BQ.1.1.

“None of these dominant sub-lineages in Nigeria that are also circulating elsewhere has been associated with any increases in case numbers, admissions, or deaths locally. The sub-lineages partly responsible for the current increase in COVID-19 cases in other countries i.e., XBB.1.5 and BF.7 have not yet been detected in the country but B.5.2.1 has been seen here since July 2022 and the others are most likely here already.

According to Adetifa, “The most important action for Nigerians to take is to get vaccinated against COVID-19, as the vaccine is the most important intervention for preventing severe disease, hospitalisation, and death. “Though the COVID-19 protocols and restrictions have been eased, people at high risk for severe COVID-19 are advised to continue to adhere to the recommended non-pharmaceutical intervention (NPIs) such as the use of face masks, good hand and respiratory hygiene and avoidance of crowded spaces.

Further, he said,” COVID-19 has and continues to follow a different epidemiological course in Nigeria and most of Africa. Other Omicron sub-lineages that were associated with increases in cases, admissions, and deaths elsewhere did not cause the same in Nigeria as confirmed by our genomics surveillance.

“This is because the population is significantly protected from a combination of natural immunity and vaccination with vaccines with a high impact on hospitalisation, and deaths.

 In hindsight, country-targeted travel restrictions including requests for PCR-negative tests from incoming travelers had little or no effect on preventing global and national circulation of omicron since the emergence of this variant and its relatives with their shorter incubation period.”

Nigeria is currently witnessing relatively low immunisation rates for COVID-19. Only a fraction of the eligible population has been fully vaccinated.