The Genetic Mutation That Causes Kraken Covid to Spread: Initial versions included BA.1, followed by BA.5, and subsequently BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. All eyes are currently focused on another jumbled series of letters and numbers called XBB.1.5, also known as the Kraken, which has just swept the northeastern US.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared XBB.1.5 to be the most contagious Omicron variety to date and recommended that nations consider advising mask use in dangerous settings, such as airplanes. It’s rapidly taking over in some areas of the US, and some specialists are concerned that it might be able to avoid immunity from earlier infections and even vaccinations.
Any time a new variation grows so swiftly, it attracts interest. Significant changes to the SARS-CoV-2 virus may increase illness, hospitalizations, and fatalities, placing a strain on the healthcare system and raising the rate of long-term COVID. The WHO claims no evidence that the mutations in this variety will lead to more severe infections, even though XBB.1.5 conditions are rising—but it’s still early.
Despite slowly increasing, Covid hospitalizations in the US are still much below their early 2022 levels. However, the emergence of a quick-moving variety brings attention to a recurring issue: the need for new immunizations.
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“For a while now, we haven’t seen a sublineage that’s taken off at that speed, so that’s another sign that this one might be worth watching for,” says Pavitra Roychoudhury, director of Covid-19 sequencing at the University of Washington Virology Lab.
Roychoudhury says it’s essential to get eyes on variants early to identify them and consider how to design future vaccines: “Until the time when we have a vaccine that will be effective against all variants, we’ll have to try and design them based on what is likely to be circulating at high frequency.”
This variation is a recombinant of two additional Omicron offspring and is a sublineage. Mixing might occur when two different virus strains infect a person simultaneously or when they come into contact with wastewater.
Suppose it turns out to have two advantages that would make it highly contagious. In that case, the capacity to evade antibodies developed from prior infections or vaccinations and strength in binding to ACE2 receptors, where Covid enters cells and infects people—this one could stand out among the various circulating Omicron variants.
Chinese researchers interested in XBB.1.5 made this claim in a preprint that they submitted in early January, but that article has not yet been published or subjected to peer review.
“It’s kind of a one-two punch of mutations,” says Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development and dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “It not only has the immune escape properties, but it was able to do it while preserving its ability to bind to the receptor.”
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People’s actions also contribute to its rapid spread: Fewer people are wearing masks now than in 2020, and many have traveled and gathered indoors to celebrate the holidays.
That’s a recipe for lots of people getting sick, fast. “What we’re having right now is this subvariant that has a lot of immune escape that is also coming into play when we have pretty much removed most, if not all, of our other public health mitigating practices,” says Stephanie Silvera, an epidemiologist, and professor of public health at Montclair State University in New Jersey.
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