The Kraken variant: What makes the new COVID-19 variant making headlines different

It is hard to believe that we are heading into the fourth year of the COVID-19 pandemic.

While many of us have returned to a new sense of normality, unfortunately, COVID-19 persists.

The World Health Organisation said on Thursday, the current COVID-19 epidemiological picture is troubling - partly due to an emerging sub-variant.  

"There is intense transmission and pressure on health systems particularly in temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, and a recombinant sub-variant spreading quickly," WHO said in a statement.

Dubbed the 'Kraken variant', XBB.1.5 is a descendant of the Omicron XBB subvariant. It is a recombinant of BA.2.10.1 and BA.2.75 sublineages.

The variant was originally identified in October 2022 and has now been detected in 29 countries and appears to be growing quickly in some geographies.

US epidemiologist Dr Eric Feigl-Ding is labelling it as a 'super variant' that is "among the most immunity evasive 'escape variants' to date".

"Anywhere it goes, hospitalisations rise," Dr Feigl-Ding told Newshub. "We're very, very worried that this could cause major problems in the next month or two."

Since the pandemic began, we have seen many different variants circulating across the world - so what makes the Kraken variant different?

The Kraken variant is the "most transmissible sub-variant which has been detected yet", WHO COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove told media on Wednesday.

It is exhibiting signs of immunity escape which is what is making headlines worldwide. 

This means it has the ability to bypass natural immunity and protection from vaccines and previous infections, making it more transmissible.

While the WHO said it does not have any data on severity yet, it said there is no indication that its severity had changed but increased transmissibility is always a concern.

The WHO is unable to currently attribute the increase in hospitalisations in the US to the variant, since many other respiratory viruses were also in circulation.

The good news is experts say the Kraken variant is not anticipated to cause more severe disease than other COVID-19 lineages.

The WHO said there is no indication that its severity had changed but increased transmissibility is always a concern.
The WHO said there is no indication that its severity had changed but increased transmissibility is always a concern. Photo credit: Getty Images

Where is the Kraken variant spreading?

The sub-variant is yet to be reported in New Zealand but in Australia, eight cases of XBB.1.5 were confirmed over the holiday period.

While naming a variant after a sea monster does sound hair-raising, an Australian expert said the variant's arrival doesn't pose a huge risk to the community and gave it a more amusing nickname. 

"Our vaccines probably do protect against it and we shouldn't be overly concerned. Although I’ve called it 'extra bad boy', it’s just a way of remembering the name XBB.1.5," University of Sydney infectious disease expert Professor Robert Booy told Sky News.

"It's more transmissible, it's more active, young and able to get around, but it's not more severe, it’s not more virulent, it's not more likely to put you in hospital."

While the Kraken variant is currently uncommon in other countries, it is becoming a dominant strain in the US.

XBB.1.5 made up 27.6 percent of sequenced COVID-19 cases in the US for this week, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said. However, in northeastern US it makes up more than 70 percent of sequenced cases.

"It is widely anticipated to go up in frequency globally, and may cause a sizeable fraction of cases globally in the near future. As such, it could push up case numbers over the coming weeks in the UK," University College London Genetics Institute director Prof Francois Balloux told Science Media Centre.  

"That said, it remains questionable whether XBB.1.5 will cause a major wave on its own."

So, what is being done?

The WHO said it was closely monitoring any possible changes in the severity of the subvariant and is doing a risk assessment set to be published in the next few days.

In the meantime, experts are urging people to be cautious not to drive fear that each new variant heralds a new crisis in the pandemic.

"There is no reason to think that XBB.1.5 is of any more concern than other variants that come and go in the ever-changing landscape of COVID-19 mutants," Oxford Vaccine Group director Prof Sir Andrew Pollard told the Science Media Centre.

"In the UK today, the issue is not new infections with COVID-19, which is just one of many non-pandemic viruses that make us sick, but the chronic shortage of capacity, money and staff in our health and social care system.  

"These are not easy problems to solve but, unlike pandemics, they are not solved by leaps in science or short-term fixes but by a long-term vision for our health shared across the political divide."