A ‘highly infectious’ Covid strain has emerged and is already behind one in 25 cases in the UK, surveillance data suggests.
The strain — dubbed XBB.1.5 — has caused alarm in the US over its quick spread and a recent rise in hospitalisations. It is behind four in 10 cases in the country, up from two in 10 one week ago.
The variant, which is a version of Omicron, has mutations that help it to better infect people and dodge protection from vaccination and prior infections.
Experts told MailOnline that strain is a ‘wakeup call’ and could worsen NHS crisis, which has seen the health service battered by a ‘twindemic’ of Covid and flu.
However, officials caution that there is no indication the strain causes more severe illness than earlier variants.
A highly contagious Covid strain has emerged and is already behind one in 25 cases in the UK, surveillance data suggests
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, shows four per cent of cases in the week to December 17 were caused by XBB.1.5
December 17 marked the first time XBB.1.5 was listed on the institute’s virus dashboard, which is updated weekly
Figures from the Sanger Institute, one of the UK’s largest Covid surveillance centres, shows four per cent of cases in the week to December 17 were caused by XBB.1.5.
It is the first time the strain has been listed on the institute’s virus dashboard, which is updated weekly.
The strain is a mutated version of Omicron XBB, which was first detected in India in August.
XBB, which is a merger of variants BJ.1 and BA.2.75, caused cases to quadruple in just one month in some nations.
Professor Lawrence Young, a virologist at Warwick University, told MailOnline that the emergence of the strain is a ‘wakeup call’ and could exacerbate the NHS crisis.
He said: ‘The XBB.1.5 variant is highly infectious and is driving increased hospital admissions in New York, particularly among the elderly.
‘Waning immunity, more indoor mixing because of the cold weather and lack of other mitigations, such as wearing facemasks, are also contributing to this surge of infection in the US.
‘We don’t know how this variant is going to behave in the UK in a population that has been previously exposed to other Omicron variants and where many of the over 50s have had booster shots with a bivalent vaccine.
Customers — some wearing face masks — queue outside a Boots store in London today amid fears around the ‘twindemic’ of Covid and flu
The flu-nami has swept across the NHS in England, the latest round of health service data shows, with over 3,800 admissions for the virus on December 23. Graph shows the number of beds on wards taken up by those with flu (red) and the number of beds occupied due to the virus in critical care (blue)
Latest Covid daily admission data shows nearly 1,300 people infected with the virus were hospitalised on December 19. The figure is up by a third week-on-week
The number of people infected with Covid taking up beds in wards across England soared above 8,600 on December 21, the latest data available shows. The figure has jumped 29 per cent in a week
‘Nevertheless, this is a wakeup call — a sharp reminder that we can’t be complacent about Covid.
‘The threat of XBB.1.5 and other Covid variants further exacerbating the current NHS crisis stresses the need for us to remain vigilant.
‘We need to continue to monitor levels of infection with different variants in the UK, encourage those who are eligible to get their boosters shots — why not extend this to the under 50s? — and promote the value of other mitigation measures.’
Data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday showed that the strain is behind 41 per cent of cases.
Dr Barbara Mahon, director of the CDC’s Coronavirus and Other Respiratory Viruses Division, told CBS News: ‘We’re projecting that it’s going to be the dominant variant in the Northeast region of the country and that it’s going to increase in all regions of the country.’
She said: ‘There’s no suggestion at this point that XBB.1.5 is more severe.’
Covid hospitalisations have been rising across the US and levels ‘don’t appear to be notching up more in the areas that have more XBB.1.5’, Dr Mahon added.
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