It seems like we hear about COVID-19 variants and sub-variants a lot these days, but this new year has delivered a new sub-variant that appears to be the most transmissible one so far.
XXB.1.5—nicknamed “Kraken” (by some), is another descendent of the Omicron variant. Like previous versions of the virus, it has been described as the most transmissible strain so far, more efficient and contagious than its predecessors—which is unsurprising given how these Covid mutations work.
Even people who have protection by Covid vaccination and booster shots, or have had a recent case of COVID-19, have become infected with the new strain. Kraken also has impeccable timing, emerging just as the cold weather kicked in, in the middle of a hard-hitting tripledemic in the US, and people gathered to celebrate the recent holidays.
So, what does all of this mean? We researched questions about XXB.1.5. for the answers you need to know.
Where did XXB.1.5 come from?
You might have heard of an Omicron subvariant called “XXB” that swept through Singapore in Fall 2022. XBB.1.5 is a direct descendent of that strain.
XBB.1.5 was first identified in the United States in New York in October 2022. Both XBB and the Kraken version (XBB.1.5) are recombinant (or hybrid) virus sub-variants, meaning they are made up of two strains—in this case, two offshoots of the Omicron BA.2 sublineage.
It is believed that both strains infected one person and mixed to form the hybrid XBB, which spawned additional mutations. As most people are aware, flu viruses do this all the time, constantly mutating and changing.
Why is it nicknamed ‘Kraken’?
The Kraken is an enormous mythical multi-tentacled sea monster, like a giant squid or octopus, in Scandinavian lore. XBB.1.5 was nicknamed “Kraken” by some scientists online who were noticing its rapid spread.
How transmissible is XXB.1.5?
The World Health Organization (WHO) has called XXB.1.5 the most transmissible Omicron strain so far. In the US, it has spread like wildfire in the New England area, where infections rose over a short period of time to more than 81% of cases as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the second week of January.
So far, national statistics are lower and vary by region—that same week, XBB.1.5 infections were less than 9% in the Midwest area that includes Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska.
But, overall, national numbers have been climbing. For example, at the beginning of December 2022, XBB.1.5 made up less than 2% of COVID-19 infections in the country; by the end of the second week of January 2023, that figure was 43%. If you want to check for updates, the CDC tracks the progress of SARS-CoV-2 variants currently circulating.
Does XXB.1.5 cause severe symptoms?
There is no evidence that XBB.1.5 causes more severe symptoms than other Omicron strains, although studies are ongoing. That said, there have been increases in hospitalizations in the Northeast and that this may be because there are more people getting infected, in general, including those who are older and more prone to infection, severe symptoms, and death from COVID-19.
How well do vaccines work against XBB.1.5?
It will take time to gather the long-term data to show how well vaccines work against XBB.1.5. Those who got the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna bivalent booster are likely to have some decent protection, especially against severe disease and death.
Those boosters target the Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5, in addition to the original virus, so it might be expected that they would work at least to some extent against another Omicron strain.
Should people be concerned about a new wave of COVID-19 cases?
Even with an increase in cases, it’s important to remember that there will still be people who are at high risk for serious disease because they are older or immunocompromised, and they risk infection from those who aren’t taking the proper safety measures.
Another issue is that the more infections there are, the more opportunities the virus has to evolve even further. With that in mind, it is recommended to get vaccinated or boosted and live as safely as possible with respect to factors such as age, health status, and other people who may be at higher risk.
Current recommendations for mitigation measures, such as wearing a mask, social distancing, testing, and more, are available on the CDC’s website.
At-home Covid tests expiring soon?
Some newly mailed Covid tests from the government expire imminently—even with FDA shelf life extensions. The shelf life of iHealth Covid tests is six months, but many kits still expire in February 2023, and some have already.
Over the summer of 2022, the Food and Drug Administration extended the tests’ shelf life by six months, but even with that extra time, most tests were only valid until January 2023. Other recently mailed tests expire in February 2023.
People have reported similar issues and confusion after the latest round of tests started shipping on December 19, 2022. Some of the newly delivered iHealth tests from Covid.gov expire in the next month or so, according to their extended dates. It’s not clear how many such tests were distributed.
The Department of Health and Human Services, which runs the mail-order Covid test program, has mentioned a way to look up test expiration dates. To find out when a Covid test really expires— factoring in the extension period—people can look up the manufacturer and test name on the FDA website. From there, you’ll find a list of expiration dates sorted by the batch’s lot number, which is located on the back of each test box. An expiration date extension means the test maker has provided evidence to the government that the tests give accurate results longer than was known when they were manufactured.
Most iHealth tests with extended shelf lives expire in February 2023 at the latest, according to the FDA’s updated list. The latest extended dates for Abbott’s BinaxNOW tests are in April 2023.
The USPS site for ordering free tests includes a notice telling people to check the extended expiration dates and directing them to the FDA site. The FDA said it has asked manufacturers to start printing the expiration date web address on test boxes going forward.
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