New variant of Omicron XBB.1.5, called “Kraken,” is not different enough from other Omicron strains to warrant its own Greek letter, WHO officials said Wednesday.
While Kraken, spread rapidly in the USis “incredibly transmissible” and spreads faster than other circulating variants such as BQ, it still belongs to the Omicron family, Maria Van Kerkhove, technical lead for the response to COVID-19 at the WHO, said at a news conference.
Canadian biology professor Ryan Gregory was recently nicknamed the “high-flying” variant—the cause of most COVID cases in the US Northeast—is after the aggressive mythological Scandinavian sea monster “Kraken.” He argued that new variants that rose to prominence needed memorable names that conveyed to the public the evolving nature of the Omicron threat, instead of just a bunch of numbers and letters. The WHO, which is in charge of assigning Greek letter names to important new variants of COVID, has not given a variant a new name since Omicron almost a year ago , who argued that the emerging variants had not evolved enough to do so.
The variant is expected to escape immunity from previous infection and vaccination at almost the same level as XBB, where it evolved, he said. The XB and BQ COVID variants are the most immune-evasive yet—but it doesn’t appear that XBB.1.5 needs that evasion, if any, anymore.
It is not yet known whether the disease caused by XBB.1.5 is more severe than that caused by other new strains of COVID. Data on the variant is limited and mostly comes from the US, which has seen the lion’s share of detected cases, Van Kerkhove added.
So far, the new Omicron strains are “behaving in the same way,” except doing a much better job of spreading, he said, adding that the WHO expects to see an additional advantage in growth and immune evasion of variants as they evolve.
When new variants start to behave differently, “we’re not afraid to use these Greek letters,” he said, referring to the organization’s system of assigning names like Alpha, Delta, and Omicron on the famous new variants of COVID.
The organization’s risk assessment of XBB.1.5 should be published “soon,” the WHO said on Wednesday.
This is a developing story and please check back for updates.
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