The latest variant of the coronavirus is the most contagious type of the disease yet and is predicted to cause a “massive wave” in cases, the World Health Organisation has announced.

Otherwise known as ‘The Kraken’, the XBB.1.5 variant is quickly spreading across America, already accounting for more than 40 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the US.

As it starts to appear in the UK and other countries, experts have confirmed that the XBB.1.5 causes the same symptoms as the Omicron variant.

The World Health Organisation’s Technical Lead for COVID-19, Dr Maria Van Kerkhove said: “We are concerned about its growth advantage in particular in some countries in Europe and in the US, particularly the Northeast part of the United States, where XBB.1.5 has rapidly replaced other circulating variants.

“Our concern is how transmissible it is and the more this virus circulates, the more opportunities it will have to change.”

According to GISAID and CoVariants.org, the XBB.1.5 variant only accounts for approximately eight per cent of COVID-19 cases across the UK.

However, data from the Sanger Institute shows that ‘The Kraken’ is responsible for half of the cases in the Wirral.

The XBB.1.5 variant has also been identified in Ireland, Singapore, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Australia, Spain and India.

Academic Professor Lawrence Young noted: “The XBB.1.5 variant is highly infectious and is driving increased hospital admissions in New York, particularly among the elderly.

“Waning immunity, more indoor mixing because of the cold weather and lack of other mitigations, such as wearing facemasks, are also contributing to this surge of infection in the US.”

Nearly 15 mutations of the XBB.1.5 variant have been detected, making it the most transmissible version of the virus to date, according to health experts.

Professor Young said: “’We don’t know how this variant is going to behave in the UK, in a population that has been previously exposed to other Omicron variants and where many of the over 50s have had booster shots with a bivalent vaccine.

“Nevertheless, this is a wakeup call — a sharp reminder that we can’t be complacent about COVID.”

He added: “The threat of XBB.1.5 and other COVID variants further exacerbating the current NHS crisis stresses the need for us to remain vigilant.

“We need to continue to monitor levels of infection with different variants in the UK, encourage those who are eligible to get their boosters shots — why not extend this to the under 50s? — and promote the value of other mitigation measures.”

University of Reading microbiologist Dr Simon Clarke said: “XBB.1.5’s ability to evade immunity has only been observed in the lab. So, it’s difficult to know how this will translate into real life.

“It doesn’t seem to be causing more serious disease than other circulating variants, which are the most important metrics to watch when tracking COVID.”

He evaluated: “It will be interesting to see how the situation develops over the coming months as the usual annual wave of flu hospitalisations is usually highest in January and February.”

Professor Francois Balloux, from the University College London, said: “It is far from clear XBB.1.5 will cause a massive wave on its own.”

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