Do not panic about new Omicron mutation, say experts

Health experts have urged South Africans not to panic over ‘XE’, Covid’s new mutant strain of the Omicron variant, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned it may be more transmissible than any other strain of Covid thus far. According to epidemiologist and senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria Dr Elize Webb, although the variant was first detected in the United Kingdom (UK) in mid-January, with more than 600 cases identified there so far, no other country has identified a case of the sub-variant. “But it is likely to spread, especially given it is reported to be 10% more…

Health experts have urged South Africans not to panic over ‘XE’, Covid’s new mutant strain of the Omicron variant, after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned it may be more transmissible than any other strain of Covid thus far.

According to epidemiologist and senior lecturer at the University of Pretoria Dr Elize Webb, although the variant was first detected in the United Kingdom (UK) in mid-January, with more than 600 cases identified there so far, no other country has identified a case of the sub-variant.

“But it is likely to spread, especially given it is reported to be 10% more transmissible than other strains,” she said.

“The sub-variant is very new and therefore very little is known about the nuances of this particular strain. Currently it is not believed XE comes with any new symptoms. Like Omicron, most reported symptoms are believed to be similar to a cold.”

Webb urged people to get vaccinated to avoid severe disease should the variant spread to South Africa.

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She also said if South Africa wants to understand the threat that the new variant carries, it can only rely on information coming from the UK at the moment.

“We also need to know if it evades our vaccines, which does not seem likely as it is recombinant (containing genetic material from two different sources), and we know the vaccines protected us against Omicron, so for the moment I am not that worried,” she said.

“I also think our herd immunity in SA is high, regardless of the low vaccination coverage rate, as Covid itself did a good job of vaccinating our population.”

Meanwhile, Dr Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases specialist at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Innovation and Sequencing Platform (KRISP), said the XE sub-variant was not something to worry about in South Africa at the moment, as health experts were already keeping an eye on it.

“It is currently not causing a problem here at the moment, so we’re certainly not concerned by it,” Lessells said.

He said while it is not impossible for the XE sub-variant to drive the fifth wave in the country, it was unlikely, as it was still within the Omicron family. The XE sub-variant is a combination of the BA.1 and the BA.2 sub-variants.

“But there is also nothing that makes us believe that it could cause another wave of infections,” Lessells explained.

Meanwhile, the WHO recently issued a report outlining their initial findings of this potentially new variant of concern, as early-day estimates indicated a community growth rate advantage of 10% as compared to BA.2, however, this finding requires further confirmation.

“WHO continues to closely monitor and assess the public health risk associated with recombinant variants, alongside other SARS-CoV-2 variants, and will provide updates as further evidence becomes available,” the report said.

reitumetsem@citizen.co.za