SOUTH AFRICA – South Africa has identified its first case of a coronavirus infection caused by the new, highly transmissible XBB.1.5 variant.

Maria van Kerkhove, COVID-19 technical lead at the World Health Organisation (WHO), referred to the  XBB.1.5 as “the most transmissible sub-variant” detected so far in the pandemic.

Nicknamed the “kraken variant” by some for its ability to spread, so far there have been no significant differences in severity identified between cases caused by XBB.1.5 and those from other variants. WHO plans an updated assessment on the variant’s risks in the coming days.

The variant was discovered in gene sequencing carried out by researchers at Stellenbosch University from a December 27 sample, tweeted Tulio de Oliveira, head of a gene-sequencing institute at the university.

The XBB.1.5 variant has quickly become the dominant strain in the US and has been detected in at least 28 other countries, according to the WHO.

It’s yet to be identified in China, which is undergoing a surge in infections after relaxing strict controls that limited the effect of previous waves of COVID-19 in the country.

No effect on cases, hospitalizations or deaths has been seen in South Africa so far, De Oliveira said.

XBB.1.5 is a descendant of the omicron XBB subvariant — which is itself a cross between two earlier strains: BA.2.75 and BA.2.10.1.

The original XBB variant has already caused waves of infection in countries including Singapore and India since the WHO first raised concern about it last October.

While accounting for just 1% of all Covid cases at the start of December, estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that it surged to become the dominant strain by the end of the month, responsible for about 41% of all infections. In northeastern states, that figure has jumped above 70%.

While only 29 countries have reported cases caused by it, health authorities are warning it could be much more widespread and silently proliferating thanks to a drop-off in testing.

In other countries, the proportion of infections caused by XBB.1.5 has remained lower, although the picture may rapidly change.

Estimates from the Wellcome Sanger Institute found that the variant made up around 4% of Covid infections in England as of mid-December, while Canada has found a handful of such cases.

Scientists pointed out 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.

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