What Is The Omicron XE Variant And Why Are Scientists Concerned About Its Rapid Transmission Rate?

Just at a time when the world is easing up restrictions for Covid-19, a new Omicron sub-variant of the virus is making scientists sit up and take notice. This variant is a new strain of the Omicron virus and has been named Omicron XE, being highly transmissible and contagious, especially in Europe where it has been discovered first. So what does this mean for us, who have been locked up in our homes for the better part of the last two years with severe and heavy restrictions?

Contagiousness is based on estimates of growth advantage by Marlin Figgins and Trevor Bedford. Antibody escape is based on antibody sera collected from patients treated with the Moderna vaccine. 

The answer is not an easy one. With the Omicron virus raging in most parts of Europe, economic development has stagnated along with the loss of jobs. However, health is not something to compromise on, and we need to know more about Omicron XE so that we are better informed and protected against possible infections from this highly transmissible strain which seems to have knocked down the defenses of a lot of countries, starting with the United Kingdom where transmission rates are higher than the average.

What are the Omicron Sub-Variants?

When the original Omicron virus, was first detected, there were no sub-variants of it, at least clinically. That soon changed. As the virus mutated to adapt to its surroundings, the human body better, and also to avoid detection, there were two distinct sub-strains of it discovered by doctors around the globe. The first was BA 1 which was relatively benign. The other which is cause for concern is the rapidly transmissible variant called BA 2 which was responsible for the majority of cases in Europe where it had a rather prominent position among all Omicron-related cases.

The WHO (World Health Organization) was deeply involved in monitoring the first and original Omicron variant BA 1. Their attention was soon drawn to some other variants of Omicron which were named BA 1.1 BA 2 and BA 3. Of these, the sub-variant BA2 was dubbed “stealth Omicron” because of the genetic mutations it possessed that made it quite hard to detect.

Lineage of Omicron family viruses based on first detection date

The parent Omicron variant has indeed mutated, but the original Omicron variant has also been classified as a “variant of concern” by both the WHO as well as the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). This is because the BA2 strain is an Omicron strain so it remains a variant of concern to watch out for.

The BA2 Omicron variant has the capability of spreading more rapidly and easily than the first SARS-CoV-2 strain that was the initial catalyst for causing COVID-19. BA 2 is in fact more contagious than the Delta variant or Omicron of any other previous strain of the parent virus.

Danish scientists have said that the Omicron sub-variant BA 2 is as much as 1.5 times more contagious than the original strain of Omicron. Other experts in the field have also issued warnings that BA 2 could and will extend the wave of infections in the UK as well as other countries like the US.

The Omicron XD, XE, and XF Variants

Researchers involved in studying the Omicron virus in many countries have of late identified some hybrid variants of the Omicron and Delta strains of coronavirus.  When the first one was spotted and studied, it was a false alarm. However, before complacency could sink in, it reared its ugly head in the UK where the recombinant variants of sub-lineages of the Omicron virus have shown signs of being highly transmissible, more so than its parent variants.

The UK Health Security Agency said that the new XE variant strain is a combination of two Omicron variants, BA.1 and BA.2.

The UK Health Security Agency is at present monitoring three different sublineages that are recombinant – XD, XE, and XF.

The XD variant happens to be a hybrid of BA 1 and Delta, and it has been mostly found in Denmark, France, and Belgium.

The XE variant, is the recombinant of two different lineages of BA1 and BA 2. However, what is causing scientists and doctors most to worry is that the XE variant has three separate and distinct mutations which are absent in the parent genome sequences: NSP3 C3241T, V1069I, and NSP12 C14599T. It is significantly more contagious and transmissible than any other Omicron strain and that should be a serious cause of concern for authorities in the UK.

The third sub-lineage is known as XF and it is a recombinant of BA1 and Delta, and again it has been detected in the UK only. Despite being relatively softer than the XE variant, it is worrying because there is no telling when this strain too will undergo mutation and pose a far more serious threat.

Transmissibility of the XE Variant

According to the World Health Organization, the BA2 sub-variant of the Omicron virus is its most dominant strain where 86% of all genome sequenced cases are attributed to it.

The WHO also issued a warning about the XE variant, saying that it is highly contagious and could be much more transmissible than any other strain of COVID that we have ever encountered so far.

The XE recombinant (BA1 – BA2) was first reported and detected in the United Kingdom on the January 19th, 2022. By March 22nd, there were 637 identified cases in the UK. These cases were distributed geographically over the UK which hinted at the community spread of the virus. Upon comparison of the genome samples of the BA2 sub-variant of Omicron which was the most dominant variant present in the UK, it was found that the XE variant was the most highly transmissible, 9.8% more, to be precise.

If reports are anything to go by, the XE variant will now hold the ugly title of being the most contagious variant to date.

Conclusion

Once again, the UK is experiencing another rapid rise of infections, with many cases of Omicron being detected each and every day. Combine it with laxity in personal protection and complete relaxation of COVID-19 protocols and you have a ticking time bomb on your hands. The government seems to have lost its way regarding Omicron outbreaks as it grapples with other economic issues of concern, relaxing Covid norms and trying to sleep its way through the issue.

While the XE strain only accounts for a small percentage of these documented cases, it has a high rate of transmissibility which indicates that in the near future, Darwinism will likely make it the most dominant strain, starting with the UK.

Fortnightly trends in PCR positivity within the SIREN study from 15 June 2020 to 20 March 2022

What cannot be denied is that the UK is seeing a second wave of Omicron infections, that shows little signs of abating, even as the country reopens geographically for travel to and from other countries. It is remarkable that a virus pandemic can be brushed under the carpet as many nations have done, to accommodate libertarian aspiration. Cases may have fallen artificially in countries because of access to free self-tests. But as we have witnessed with the Omicron wave, hospitalizations and mortalities have not declined proportionality.

We all need direction from our governments, and the government seems to have lost its way as it tussles with one issue after another. Since all COVID-19 precautionary measures are now removed, if you are living in the UK, you’ve got to think on your own and not let your guard down. You should continue to follow the COVID guidelines diligently with responsibility. With the threat of the XE recombinant variant of Omicron, we do want to keep a degree of precaution and self-awareness to safeguard our defenses.

This way, we can still get to enjoy those fresh breaths of air, a luxury that unfortunately, many Omicron XE patients may not have.