Omicron sub-variant discussed by infectious disease expert
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Coronavirus case numbers remain high across the country with the existing Delta and Omicron variants now joined by a hybrid subvariant, Omicron XE. While the Government is determined to continue implementing its living with Covid strategy, the latest variant has proven highly transmissible – even more so than the existing strains. No mention of new restrictions have been made by the authorities, but could new COVID-19 measures be implemented? Express.co.uk spoke to Denis Kinane, Leading Immunologist and Founding Scientist of Cignpost Diagnostics to find out.
What is Omicron XE?
Delta and Omicron are versions of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) which have acquired mutations.
The latest ‘XE’ variant is a hybrid variant of the two well-known strains of Omicron:
- BA.1 – the original Omicron strain
- BA.2 – the more infectious strain which is now dominant in USA and other countries
Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk, Denis Kinane said: “XE is known as a recombinant variant, which forms when one SARS-CoV-2 strain picks up some genetic material from another SARS-CoV-2 strain.
“This means the new recombinant variant picks up characteristics associated with each strain, but is not always a more dangerous version.”
Is Omicron XE a cause for concern?
One of the key differences between the earlier Covid variants and XE, is that this latest strain seems to continue to be infectious for much longer.
In fact, data by Cignpost Diagnostics has shown that people are testing positive for 10 days or more currently, rather than six or seven days at the beginning of the Omicron wave.
Further data released by the UK Health Security Agency (UHSA) on Friday, April 8 found that the XE variant is spreading almost 21 percent faster than BA.2, though Mr Kinane said this is to be expected given the transmissibility of this Omicron hybrid.
He added: “It is important for the authorities to be able to track and respond appropriately to any rise in cases of COVID-19 in the UK.
“Thus authorities must remain vigilant, as do the public, and retain sensible public health measures in crowded spaces.”
Will Covid restrictions return?
While testing is the best way for authorities to keep track of Covid cases – especially Omicron XE, the end of England’s free testing programme will make this much more difficult to achieve.
With no way to accurately measure the rate at which the known variants are spreading, Mr Kinane believes that the likelihood of lockdown, or any other new measures being implemented is “unlikely”.
He said: “The Government is continuing to pursue its living with Covid strategy and any return to restrictions is likely to be a last resort strategy for the Government.
“While the Omicron XE variant is 20 percent more contagious than the BA.2 variant, and that variant was 40 percent more infectious than BA.1, there is no suggestion as yet that the XE variant leads to increased hospitalisations or more severe symptoms.”
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How can you protect yourself against Omicron XE?
Despite no signs of new or pre-existing measures returning to the UK, the transmissibility and risk of Covid remains high – especially for compromised groups.
Mr Kinane explained that while he “completely understands” the Government’s desire to return to normal as soon as possible, the decision to end free tests will leave many vulnerable groups extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 as people in their social circle will not be readily tested, and may be asymptomatic carriers.
He added: “The increased transmissibility of the XE variant should be met with caution and I would suggest that the public continue to take sensible precautions to limit person to person transmission of COVID-19.
“This should include mask-wearing and practising social distancing where appropriate, and also the use of testing if your symptoms reflect those linked to coronavirus.”
According to current NHS guidance, you should try to stay at home if you have symptoms which resemble those linked to COVID-19.
The NHS recognises the following physical symptoms as a sign of coronavirus:
- A high temperature or shivering (chills) – a high temperature means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature)
- A new, continuous cough – this means coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours
- A loss or change to your sense of smell or taste
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling tired or exhausted
- An aching body
- A headache
- A sore throat
- A blocked or runny nose
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling sick or being sick
It should be noted that these symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other illnesses, such as colds and flu.
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