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Friday, January 27, 2023
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New covid-19 variant: Should we “Beware the Kraken”?

Dr. Gene Olinger explains the risks of the new covid-19 variant which has been nicknamed "Kraken" and is believed to be more contagious than past variants.

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There is a new variant on the block, once again. Concerns about the new Omicron variant fuelling a fresh spate of cases in the United States and beyond are on the rise.

The World Health Organization (WHO) initially detected the COVID-19 Omicron subvariant XBB.1.5 in Oct. 2022. The new variant follows the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, and Delta variants of concern.

Nicknamed “Kraken,” this variant is believed to be more contagious than past variants. To learn more about this new subvariant and understand its risks, we spoke with MRIGlobal’s Dr. Gene Olinger, Ph.D., Chief Science Advisor.

Read more: Chinese take risks on black market drugs as Covid surges

Where have cases of this variant been seen thus far?

WHO notes that this new variant has been observed in 25 countries so far, including the United Kingdom and the United States. CDC reports that 40 percent of new COVID-19 cases in the U.S. the week ending Saturday, Dec. 31 are due to this variant, with 75 percent of cases in the Northeastern states being this variant. The Midwestern US has been spared to date, with about 8 percent of cases being this variant, but it is likely to increase in the coming weeks.

Is this variant more contagious than past variants?

Virus survival depends on a variety of characteristics, however, there is a tendency for the virus to modulate virulence (disease outcome) and/or contagiousness. It is like a teeter-totter; with the factors, we play into making an impact on how the interplay between virus and the world plays out.

Vaccination, human-to-human contact, and even reverse spillover – for instance, the virus goes into an animal like whitetail deer and then back into humans with changes – will lead to the variant with the potential for more or less virulence or infectivity.

Read more: Global alarm grows over China’s Covid surge

Overall, there seems to be a trend that the virus is evolving to be more infectious, spreading more easily between people, but is likely less severe than the Alpha and Delta variants. This is ideal, but the more times the virus infects people, the greater the potential for something that we dread, which would be a virus that is a high-consequence variant, which we have not yet observed.

What is the risk with this variant? 

Because this sub-variant of Omicron seems to be less dangerous, but more contagious, it will lead to a new “wave” of virus infections in higher numbers of people. However, the less dangerous aspect is misleading because higher infectiousness and the lack of constraints people are using to protect themselves means that highly susceptible people are being or will become infected, possibly for the first time during this pandemic. These individuals often have co-morbidities or conditions that result in hospitalization and death. Further, as they age and experience life, new comorbidities arise that they may not have had in the prior years, so it is constant pressure between us and the virus.

What preventative measures should people take to stay safe?

It is important to take care of yourself and your loved ones through preventative health care, good nutrition, exercise, and of course handwashing and good hygiene. We also learned during the first years of the pandemic the value of managing our social networks and social distancing, which could be beneficial again now.

Further, if you are in a crowded room, assume someone may be infected and understand how that would impact your health or those who live with you. You should also wear a mask and limit your time in that space. When I visit a restaurant or store, if it is busy and crowded, I simply go to another location or come back at a less busy time.

Should I get a vaccine booster?

There are benefits to getting a vaccine booster shot. There is some evidence that vaccination boosters may have a limited impact on the antibody response for this particular variant in providing complete protection. However, that doesn’t mean that cellular response is completely blunted, so there may be some value in doing so, as it will likely decrease the severity and length of illness if infected.

If you have a co-morbidity or multiple issues, vaccine boosters are encouraged, so talk to your healthcare provider. Also, if you have not had an infection or booster vaccination since July 2022, you may want to consider the newer vaccines that are available now.

Read more: Booster shots needed to keep Covid vaccines efficacy intact: UK researchers

Will existing diagnostics and treatments still work on this variant?

Studies are underway to determine vaccine or natural immunity on the new variant and any impacts on existing diagnostic assays. The very effective antibody treatments available for Alpha, Delta, and early Omicron variants are not available for salvage therapy anymore since they have lost the ability to bind to this variant and stop the infection. If a patient is hospitalized, medical professionals are focusing on oral/IV drug treatments and supportive care, while new antibody treatments are being developed.

Anything else we should know about this variant?

My experience is that individuals who have avoided the virus since the beginning are now becoming infected, some of whom are vulnerable people. Diagnostic assays seem to become positive days after someone first feels ill, which can be up to five days in some cases. Individuals infected remain positive for more than a week, even after feeling better. Those who take the orally available drugs are observing rebound after a week or so of treatment. Too, the more vulnerable people who have thus far avoided infection and have recently become infected are experiencing long-haul COVID symptoms, mainly exhaustion and not feeling normal well after the course of the disease.