A “Frankenstein”-style new Omicron subvariant is spreading in the UK — and some experts fear the mutation may be the most contagious form yet of COVID-19.
The XE variant — which has also been confirmed in India and Thailand — is a mix of Omicron’s BA.1 strain and the new “stealth” BA.2 form, the Daily Beast reported.
Such mutations are known as “recombinants,” and occur when a person gets infected with two or more variants at a time and they combine “Frankenstein” style, the outlet reported.
A total of 637 cases of the XE recombinant variant have been confirmed in the UK, according to data from the UK Health Security Agency.
It’s unclear whether XE causes more severe illness or evades vaccines, though early data suggests that it may be more transmissible than earlier forms of the Omicron virus.
“Early estimates suggest that XE has a community growth rate advantage of 1.1 (which represents a 10% transmission advantage) as compared to BA.2,” the World Health Organization said.
Though new COVID-19 cases decreased globally for the second consecutive week, some experts agree that the emerging XE variant has the potential to drive up case numbers.
“From the WHO reports, it does appear to have a bit more of an edge in terms of transmissibility,” Stephanie James, head of a coronavirus testing lab at Regis University in Colorado, told the Daily Beast.
But some experts said it’s still too early to tell whether it will cause surges in cases.
“So far there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions about transmissibility, severity or vaccine effectiveness,” UK Health Security Agency chief medical adviser Susan Hopkins told CNBC.
Other experts said it’s possible that the global population has enough natural immunity from winter surges driven by earlier Omicron variants to lessen the new variant’s impact, the outlet reported.
India has detected its first case of the variant, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. The hybrid strain was discovered in a 50-year-old woman who traveled to Mumbai from South Africa in February.
The woman, who was asymptomatic, was quarantined after being diagnosed in March, according to the report.
XE has also been detected in Thailand, CNBC reported.
The subvariant hasn’t been found in the US yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not already circulating there, another expert told the Daily Beast.
“It might not be detected by the standard analysis pipeline,” said Rob Knight, head of a genetic computation lab at the University of California-San Diego.
Some health experts told the outlet to expect future subvariants to be identified as well.
“COVID-19 continues,” said public health expert Eric Bortz, who works as a virologist at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.