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The new COVID-19 variant on the block

Investigating XBB.1.5, aka the ‘Kraken’

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XBB.1.5, unofficially nicknamed the ‘Kraken’ strain, is a new strand of the omicron variant that has swept across the United States after first being reported last October. The variant has taken the country by storm, with 43% of new COVID-19 cases in the United States being linked to it as of Jan. 17. 

“We anticipate that [XBB.1.5] is the newest and greatest strain of COVID that will spread throughout the United States and throughout the world,” Dr. Alexander Greninger, assistant professor of laboratory medicine at UW, told the UW Medicine Newsroom. 

As of Jan. 16, the Washington State Department of Health reported 55 cases of COVID-19 for every 100,000, and COVID-19 patients occupy 6% of hospital beds. In the Seattle area, 1,174 new patients were recorded within a seven-day period, a rate of 52 cases per day.

“If you were to get COVID in the month of January, if I were a wagering person, I would say it's probably going to be XBB.1.5,” Greninger stated. 

XBB.1.5 is also more transmissible than most other variants. This is because it has mutated to be able to better bind to cells, Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center reported. However, according to Across Washington Patch, XBB.1.5 doesn’t appear to be any more severe than other omicron strains. Additionally, the COVID-19 booster vaccine remains effective against hospitalization and severe conditions for the new subvariant.

Antivirals, such as Paxlovid, have been contested to determine whether they remain an effective treatment against XBB.1.5. 

Paxlovid is an investigational medicine by Pfizer. The medicine is intended for mild-to-moderate COVID-19 cases in adults and children over 12 years of age who are at risk of hospitalization and progression to severe cases of COVID-19. It has recently been authorized by the Food & Drug Administration for emergency use, and, although it has not been fully approved yet, it is under experimental investigation by Pfizer. 

According to Johns Hopkins University & Medicine, Paxlovid has been found to be incompatible with some medications, while concerns of a potential “Paxlovid rebound” are also an issue. 

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According to Greninger, “those [antiviral] drugs are going to work against XBB.1.5.”

COVID-19 booster vaccines have a bivalent ability, which works by stimulating an immune response against two separate antigens, including the omicron variant and its subvariants. 

“That is the one thing you can control most here, is getting a vaccine and getting a booster,” Greninger said. “The vaccines and prior immunity do protect you from hospitalization and mortality.”

The new “Kraken” variant, XBB.1.5, has not caused an alarming new surge of COVID-19 cases in Washington state. Cases spiked slightly over the past holiday season, but have since stabilized. This is a change from January 2022, which saw a peak of 1,760, seven-day case rate per 100,000 people. 

XBB.1.5 has not been behind as many new COVID-19 cases in the west as it has in other areas of the country. For example, 75% of new cases in the Northeast, as of early January, have been attributed to the new strain. Regardless, doctors still urge those who have not received a booster vaccine within the last six months to one year to do so in the near future, along with other methods of protection. 

Masking in indoor settings and several forms of treatments and therapeutics also remain effective,” Greninger said. 

Reach writer Dany Villarreal at Twitter: @danyvvm03

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