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By Gareth Cotterell

Digital Editor


Highly contagious Covid variant XBB.1.5 found in SA

The Department of Health has advised Souths Africans to start wearing masks again to avoid catching the new Covid variant.


The first case of the new highly transmissible Covid omicron variant has been detected in South Africa.

On Saturday the Department of Health said it had been alerted to the presence of the new XBB.1.5 variant and was meeting with scientists to get more information on its transmissibility and severity.

The health department said it is meeting with scientists to gather more information on the highly transmissible variant.

South Africans should start wearing face masks again and continue to get vaccinations, the department advised.

The symptoms of the Covid XBB.1.5 variant are similar to the previous omicron variants and resemble cold-like symptoms, such as runny nose, sore throat, cough and congestion. Those infected with the new variant are less likely to experience fevers.

‘Kraken variant’

The variant was discovered by Stellenbosch University’s Network for Genomics Surveillance on 27 December, Virologist Professor Tulio de Oliveira said.

There have been no increases in cases, hospitalisations or deaths in South Africa so far, he added.

Dr Aslam Dasoo, the convenor of the Progressive Health Forum, said there is no evidence of XBB.1.5 being a new variant of concern. Omicron remains the dominant strain around the world, including in China, he said.

Dasoo said preventative measures, like using a face mask, should be taken by high risk individuals such as those older than 60 and with serious comorbidities.

“For the rest of us, common sense measures like avoiding being around those with cold or flu like symptoms suffice,” he said. 

Canadian biology professor Dr. Ryan Gregory had nicknamed XBB.1.5 the ‘kraken variant’ because it is able to spread quickly. A kraken is a mythical giant tentacled sea monster from Scandinavian folklore.

XBB.1.5 is the most transmissible omicron sub-variant detected so far, the World Health Organisation’s (WHO’s) senior epidemiologist Maria Van Kerkhove said.

At the beginning of January, the WHO said the XBB variant was estimated to be responsible for 44.1% of Covid cases in the United States and had also been detected in 28 other countries.

Watch: Concerns grow over new Covid-19 variant

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Though South Africa’s health department is on alert, it said there is currently no epidemiological evidence suggesting this sublineage of omicron will be substantially more severe than the previous omicron sublineages experienced in the country.

The department, however, said South Africans should start taking precautions again to prevent infections such as:

  • vaccinating,
  • getting booster shots,
  • avoiding crowded places,
  • keeping a distance between yourself and other people,
  • wearing a face mask,
  • washing hands frequently.

“The known Covid-19 virus variants are still in circulation, and we are not off the hook from the pandemic, hence people are urged to vaccinate and take boosters shots that they qualify for to enhance their level of immunity,” it said.

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coronavirus variant Covid-19 Omicron

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