The EU’s disease control agency has good news and bad news when it comes to XBB.1.5, the coronavirus sub-variant nicknamed Kraken that is ripping through America and keeping epidemiologists up at night.
The bad news is that XBB.1.5 is spreading quickly, most likely because it has some big advantages over the currently dominant Omicron strains. The good news is that Europe has some time to prepare for if and when cases go vertical.
“There is a possibility that this variant could have an increasing effect on the number of COVID-19 cases in the EU/EEA, but not within the coming month as the variant is currently only present in the EU/EEA at very low levels,” writes the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) in its recent assessment of XBB.1.5.
On Wednesday, the WHO’s COVID-19 technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove said that the health agency was concerned with how quickly the sub-variant was replacing other variants in circulation. In the U.S., it went from 4 percent of cases sequenced to 40 percent in a few weeks, according to the White House’s COVID-19 Response Coordinator.
However, it is not yet known whether it causes more severe infection.
The ECDC writes that the elevated pace of spread is likely due to XBB.1.5’s ability to dodge immune system protection granted by previous infections or vaccination. It also has a mutation on its spike protein — the part of the virus that binds to host cells — which might provide some advantage.
For now, the sub-variant is just a blip on the radar in Europe in terms of case numbers, said the ECDC, though it has been detected in Denmark, France, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Iceland, Belgium, Czech Republic, Portugal, and Ireland. Data coming out of the U.S. suggests XBB.1.5 spreads aggressively, with cases doubling every nine days.
The danger is that an explosion of cases coincides with an already-difficult influenza and respiratory syncytial virus season, straining hospitals. In Belgium, public health authorities declared a flu epidemic due to surging cases, with the peak expected in three or four weeks.
But just because the sub-variant is exploding in the U.S. doesn’t necessarily mean that Europe will soon be in the eye of the storm. “[M]ajor differences in variant circulation have been observed between North America and Europe several times during the pandemic,” writes the ECDC.