What is the new Covid XBB.1.5. variant that’s got experts talking? Here's what we know...

topshot a syringe is pictured on an illustration representation of covid 19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus in paris on may 18, 2020 photo by joel saget afp photo by joel sagetafp via getty images
Everything we know about new Covid XBB.1.5 variantJOEL SAGET - Getty Images

We've had Omicron XE, the Centaurus and more recently the 'XBB' Covid-19 variation. Now we’re facing a new Covid XBB.1.5 sub-variant, which has been spreading rapidly across the US, with some cases having been reported in the UK too. But while experts at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) say XBB.1.5 is not currently a variant of concern in the UK, cases are still known to have been recorded in Britain. Here’s everything we know so far.

What is the Covid XBB.1.5 variant?

The new Covid-19 variant, known as XBB.1.5, is the latest strain that has descended from Omicron. It has evolved from the XBB variant of Omicron, and two different BA.2 variants.

Omicron was the variant behind the sharp rise in hospital admissions and in the UK last winter – and still remains highly transmissible. The World Health Organization has called it the “most transmissible sub-variant that has been detected yet”, but despite this, the XBB.1.5 variant has not been classified as a cause for concern by health authorities.

Symptoms of XBB.1.5 are thought to be similar to previous Omicron strains. Although not confirmed, most people experience cold-like symptoms.

Is XBB.1.5 more infectious and dangerous than other variants?

The rapid spread across the US has sparked fear about a new Covid variant, leading to questions whether it is more dangerous or likely to spread to other countries.

Scientists from the World Health Organization (WHO) are still working hard on lab studies, hospital data and infection rates to find out more about its impact on patients, but it was confirmed on Wednesday that XBB.1.5 has a "growth advantage" above all other sub-variants seen so far.

However WHO said there was no indication it was more serious or harmful than previous Omicron variants, and given the widespread vaccine rollout in the UK, it’s hoped that if people do fall ill with this strain of the virus, symptoms would be mild

Ravi Gupta, professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Cambridge, has said via The Guardian: “It might drive an increase in cases, but I’m not convinced this will necessarily cause an explosive wave of infections in the UK. I don’t think there’s any cause to panic. The main thing we worry about is the severity of the disease, and there is no evidence that it’s more severe. People should, however, make sure they are up to date with their vaccines.”

Will XBB.1.5 spread to the UK?

There are concerns that this new strain of Covid-19 could lead to another wave of the virus, spreading to the UK – which comes amid worries over a "twindemic" of Covid and the flu. Although it is still unclear whether the variant will surge into the UK, some rise is expected. Figures for the week to Saturday 17 December from the Sanger Institute in Cambridge suggested that one in 25 Covid cases in the UK were XBB.1.5.

Most cases of XBB.1.5 have been detected in America, where the number of infections are rapidly increasing. Over there, XBB.1.5 now accounts for over 40% of Covid cases in the US.

And the reason for it spreading so rapidly? Well, experts who are analysing XBB.1.5 say it has an unusual mutation that is causing it to spread quicker, making it harder for the antibodies people have already gained from vaccinations to fight off the virus successfully.

What are the symptoms of the XBB.1.5 variant?

There’s no reason to suspect that the symptoms of the XBB.1.5 variant will be different to its Omicron cousins. The NHS says Omicron symptoms include a high temperature or shivering, a new, continuous cough, change to taste or smell, head and body aches, a sore throat, blocked or runny nose, tiredness and gastric symptoms.

This article is not to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always seek the advice of a qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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