The World Health Organisation has sounded the alarm about a new strain of COVID that they have determined to be the most transmissible on record.
Much like ‘Deltacron‘, this new variant, termed ‘XE’, is a “recombinant”. That means it’s a mutated hybrid of two different strains of COVID already in existence.
The big fear with recombinants is that they become more dangerous while also being more transmissible — taking the worst aspects of the strains they have emerged from.
This doesn’t yet appear to be the case with XE, however, scientists are saying that it’s still too early to tell how bad this one could be.
First detected in the UK in January, the WHO has said that this variant is an indicator that we shouldn’t be letting our guard down when it comes to the pandemic and COVID measures that reduce the spread of the virus.
XE is a recombinant of Omicron (BA.1) and its sub-varient, BA.2. More than 600 cases have been identified in the past three months, which is only a small fraction of the tens of thousands of cases per day that the UK has been experiencing over recent months.
However, while COVID cases had been dropping steadily across the globe since January, there has been an increase in cases over the past two weeks which the WHO is concerned about. It’s thought that new variants like BA.2, Omicron, and now XE, could be behind this rise, combined with the global dropping of COVID restrictions.
New variants are always concerning, but it’s not yet clear how worried we should be about XE. Here’s what we know so far.
What are the Symptoms of the XE Variant?
Given that we know precious little about the new variant, it’s hard to determine whether the symptoms caused will be significantly or noticeably different from those of other Omicron or COVID strains.
XE has also yet to be detected in Australia, so it’s very unlikely to be circulating here. If you have any of the below, it’s far more likely to be another strain of COVID, rather than XE.
Because the new recombinant strain is very similar to Omicron, we can imagine the symptoms will be much the same. This tends to present as less of a dry cough and more of a head-cold type infection, with a sore throat, blocked sinuses, a headache, and fever or chills are common.
As the virus appears to be spreading in the UK, the official health advice was recently updated to incorporate a range of new symptoms to be on the lookout for — although these are not explicitly for XE.
They are shortness of breath, feeling tired or exhausted, an aching body, a headache, a sore throat, a blocked or runny nose, loss of appetite, diarrhoea, feeling sick, or being sick.
If you are concerned about symptoms or have been in contact with someone with COVID, it’s best to get tested and isolate until you get your results. XE, as a sub-variant of Omicron, is still very much able to be detected by a standard RAT or PCR test.
Is The XE Variant Bad News?
To be clear, this is not a new ‘Greek letter’ designation of a variant of concern by the WHO. XE is simply the name given to it by the PANGO naming convention which scientists use to track different strains of COVID.
In its report, the WHO did not provide a huge amount of information but what they did say is telling.
“Early-day estimates indicate a community growth rate advantage of 10 percent as compared to BA.2, however, this finding requires further confirmation,” they wrote.
In the UK, where the variant appears to be circulating, the Health Security Agency has said that the recombinant variant contains most of the genetic code of BA.2, including the spike protein outer layer that it uses to get into human cells.
Given that BA.2 is now thought to be globally dominant, and behind the recent surge in cases that Australia has seen, we can probably expect this virus to act fairly similarly. BA.2 is thought to be more transmissible than BA.1 or Omicron, however, it’s also thought to be less deadly.
Overall, XE is still a sub-variant of Omicron, albeit, a slightly different one. Therefore, we should probably take similar precautions to it as we did to Omicron.
It’s not like this is the only recombinant out there, either. Scientists monitoring new variants have identified a French Delta and BA.1 recombinant, known as XD, as well as a British Delta and BA.1 recombinant known as XF. There are also recombinants known as XG, XH, XJ, XK, and XL that have all been identified over 100 times. These are all expected to act very similarly to their parent strains, with little cause for alarm. This is nothing we haven’t seen before.
XD, which has been identified in France, the Netherlands, and Germany, is one that scientists suggest could present challenges if it has the lethality of Delta with the transmissibility of BA.2 — but so far that hasn’t been shown to be the case.
None of these variants have been shown to be completely resistant to vaccination, either. While Omicron did appear to show some ability to evade immunity, it is well countered by a third dose of the vaccine, highlighting the importance of that booster shot.
It’s not yet certain if we’re out of the woods with the pandemic, or whether some horrible mutant strain will emerge and plunge us all back into lockdown.
Dr. Norman Swan has previously said that it’s not guaranteed that COVID variants will follow the trend that we have become accustomed to — more transmissible but less dangerous until the virus as a whole fades into irrelevance — and that future varients could well demonstrate more virulent characteristics.
Until that happens though — if it ever does — it’s worth keeping an eye on these new variants and their behaviour and practising sensible hygiene and COVID mitigation strategies.