By Elizabeth Sitotombe

THE new COVID-omicron XBB.1.5 variant is proof that the time to completely relax where the pandemic is concerned is not yet ripe.

The virus that causes COVID-19 continues to change and mutate and the latest one has caused some concern because of how it is easily transmissible.

The variant, which has been nicknamed ‘kraken‘ variant by some scientists, has been detected in the US, South Africa and at least 28 other countries, In SA it was discovered in gene sequencing carried out by researchers at Stellenbosch University from a December 27 sample triggering panic in neighbouring countries. 

In Zimbabwe, Government assured the public it has put in place necessary measures and safeguards to control the variant. 

Screening and testing of COVID-19 at ports of entry are still in place according to S1 67 of 2022.

According to a health practitioner, chances of the variant coming to Zimbabwe is now higher after it has been detected in SA. 

The general public had since stopped adhering to many of the measures that remain in place. The health practitioner urged people to get booster shots and continue adhering to prevention measures. 

There is, however, absolutely no need to panic, he stated.

WHO has expressed concern on how the XBB.1.5 variant is five times more virulent than previous variants.

Symptoms of infection remain similar; these include headaches, joint pain, pain in the neck, upper back pain,  pneumonia, lack of appetite, sore throat, sneezing and cold cough.

The XBB.1.5 sub-variant now makes up to 28 percent of COVID-19 cases in the US, according the Centre for Disease Control (CDC). 

What is XBB.1.5 variant?

XXB.1.5 is a descendent of omicron; it is a sub-lineage of XBB

XBB was first discovered in October and is a recombinant of two other omicron sub-variants. 

There are many sub-variants under omicron which has been the most contagious variant of COVID-19 so far. However, omicron has been known to cause less severe disease and fewer hospitalisations.

XBB’s spike protein has a suite of mutations that boost the variant’s ability to evade antibodies. 

The XBB.1.5‘s defining feature and its main difference from XBB is a spike protein mutation known as F486P. According to Maria Van Kerhove, the senior epidemiologist at the WHO, the XBB.1.5 is the most transmissible variant that has been detected yet.

 It spreads rapidly because of the mutations it contains, allowing it to adhere to cells and replicate easily.

According to WHO, there in no data on how severe it is but increased transmissibility is always a concern.

Those travelling on long haul flights have been urged to wear masks based on the level of transmissibility of XBB.1.5.

The EU advised its 27 member-nations to insist on negative COVID-19 tests for travellers boarding flights from China to the region, amid a surge in coronavirus cases in the country.

Vaccines have still been shown to be effective against such strains. Vaccination remains a most important tool against severe illness of COVID-19

While they may not be able to prevent infection, the chances of getting severe disease are greatly reduced. Booster shots help reduce the risk of severe pneumonia, curtailing the risk of hospitalisation and death. 

A study published in the medical journal Cell in December 2022 suggested that XBB.1.5 is better at evading previous immunity an individual may have acquired through vaccination and previous illness. Therefore, it is important to get booster shots, especially the elderly and those with underlying conditions.

The existing prevention measures, such as washing hands and wearing of masks in enclosed spaces, are also important measures to be followed.

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