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A new COVID variant on the rise


WORLD Radio - A new COVID variant on the rise

The omicron offshoot is officially called XBB.1.5, nicknamed the “Kraken variant”

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the latest mutation of COVID going around.

Many health officials say this omicron offshoot is the most infectious one yet. It’s officially called XBB.1.5, but the nickname is more easily remembered as the Kraken variant.

NICK EICHER, HOST: While we have seen something of a holiday surge in new cases, it has only been a small fraction of the tremendous spike in cases we experienced at this time last year.

But the subvariant is on the rise. So what should we know about this latest strain?

Here now to help us answer that question is Zach Jenkins. He is a pharmacist and pharmacology professor at Cedarville University, a Christian college in Cedarville, Ohio.

REICHARD: Zach, good morning.

ZACH JENKINS, GUEST: Good morning!

REICHARD: First of all, how widespread is the so-called “Kraken” variant now? And how contagious is this subvariant as compared to previous strains?

JENKINS: So this subvariant is very contagious. There's actually a mutation that occurred on the ACE2 binding region of the virus. And so what that really means is that it has an easier time getting into cells. So that's actually what's making it evade host immunity in some cases, because it has a much easier time getting to where it needs to be. To put it in perspective, it's kind of like a two to one growth ratio. So for every person that's infected, they're going to infect probably two other people. Typically, onset is like the first couple of days following exposure. So it's hitting rapidly. And where it started here in the U.S. is it was really strong in the Northeast and then it's starting to move south. And now it's hitting the Midwest and West hard. And so we're expecting it to peak probably in February at this point.

REICHARD: And in terms of symptoms, what are we most commonly seeing with this strain?

JENKINS: So it's an Omicron subvariant. And so that means what we've seen with Omicron, it's really true in this case. We've not seen any major deviations there. So it's all the upper respiratory processes you'd be familiar with like sore throat, cough, runny nose, sometimes the cough is dry, sometimes it's productive. And then on top of that, you have chills and some people—and we haven't heard of this one for a while—are actually losing their sense of smell as well.

REICHARD: I have heard that this strain is very good at getting around existing immunities. Can you speak to that? And how effective are existing vaccines effective against this strain?

JENKINS: So, as far as previous immunity through exposure through vaccination, this is definitely more capable of evading those things. It's changed just enough, again, because of that ACE2 mutation, that it's really finding ways to circumvent, really, that previous immunity. A way to think about it is it's almost like it's more sticky. It has an easier time of sticking to people, getting where it needs to be than before compared to the other variants that you're thinking about. So what that means for us is if you previously had an infection probably beyond three months or more ago, you could potentially be at risk for induction again.

REICHARD: I know some health officials that new variants could emerge from China, with the country reopening after having isolated the population for so long. Do you share that concern?

JENKINS: So, I guess the way I would term it is it's possible that you could see something like what we experienced with India where during some of the religious holidays in India, we saw Delta really emerge. And that was a new novel strain. We haven't actually had a new strain of COVID in a year. So it's been over a year, really, since we had a new strain. That's important to note. Everything you hear about, it's all like a sublineage. It's a subvariant. So they're so similar that there aren't too many concerns, as far as increasing severity of disease and that sort of thing, or maybe our therapeutics are still effective is a good way to think about it too. But the concern I think they have is if it's able to move rapidly, and it seems to be doing so—I've actually read a report not too long ago—that as a whole province that's been 90% infected in a place that had zero tolerance for COVID before. They basically had the floodgates open so everyone's getting it now. So it's possible. Probable? Probably not. And the reason I would say that is because we have exposure in so many places across the world right now to COVID, it's not like it was with Delta. And the same is true in China. Everyone's getting hit with it right now. So it's unlikely that it's probably going to produce a new very significant strain

REICHARD: We talked recently about a trio of viruses straining some health systems—COVID, flu, and RSV. Are we seeing a slowdown at all with flu and RSV cases?

JENKINS: Well, the good news is we've actually seen a decrease in RSV. It seems to have peaked in November and it's starting to drop off. So that's really encouraging news, especially for our young kids who are at a big risk when it comes to RSV. Infants, in particular, may be hospitalized with RSV. So that tends to be a big problem in kids. With the flu, it seems to have peaked in the fall. So it hit early this year, which is unusual. And there were, I mean, just to put it in perspective, this is a record high respiratory illness season. Really the first in like the past decade that we've seen these numbers. With COVID added into the mix, we don't know where that's going to end up because again, we're kind of expecting that to peak in February.

REICHARD: We’ve been talking with Dr. Zack Jenkins who has an active case of covid right now! Thanks so much!

JENKINS: Sure, not a problem.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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