A new COVID-19 variant has spread across China, causing concerns more variants will develop and spread.
That’s according to biochemist Professor Luke O’Neill, who said COVID-19 is still an active issue, even if it’s not as prevalent.
The XBB1.5 variant, previously referred to as the ‘Kraken’ COVID variant, is a highly infectious, rapidly spreading variant, according to Prof O’Neill.
“This XBB1.5 is the latest version of Omicron and it's actually highly infectious,” he said.
“This one is spreading like wildfire - as many as 65 million people, the numbers show, got infected.
“It is what they’re calling the first major reinfection that China has seen since they reopened.”
Risk of spreading
While a large portion of the Chinese population is vaccinated, Prof O’Neill said health experts around the world are monitoring the risk of XBB1.5 spreading further.
“The concern here is it's spreading so much that there's a risk of new variants,” he said.
“Every time the virus divides, it makes a copy of itself when it makes a copy, a mistake is made in the copying process... Every time you copy DNA, a little error creeps in.”
Scientists are keeping a “close eye” on the development of XBB1.5 in case a new variant emerges that is “much more dangerous”.
Hospitals are the main point of tracking, according to Prof O’Neill, and China has “a great surveillance system that tracks things very closely to release information”.
Despite concerns from health experts, Prof O’Neill said XBB1.5 has not been hugely dangerous thanks to the high rate of vaccination in China.
“More than 90% are now vaccinated, which is great,” he said. “That began in earnest last December when their first surge [of XBB.15] and at least 85% of Chinese people got infected.
“You’re vaccinating people who probably already been infected, [but] the science tells us a wonderful combination is to have a natural infection without getting too sick and then getting the vaccine which mediates infection.”
Prof O’Neill said it is “extremely important” to continue getting booster vaccines, even in Ireland where COVID-19 cases have plateaued – because Long COVID remains a risk for all.
“They reckon at least 65 million people worldwide have Long COVID, and a lot of people are suffering,” he said.
“It's become crystal clear this is a maligned virus because it causes these persistent symptoms... chronic fatigue syndrome, Lyme disease.”
He said there are genetic components that may influence your chances of getting Long COVID, but the risk is far lower when people get a booster regularly.
“Make sure you go to your GP get the best of advice – they have all the options,” he said.
You can find out more about COVID-19 updates and all things with Prof O'Neill every week on Show Me the Science.