New Highly Contagious COVID-19 Strain Worries Experts

Experts have urged people at risk of becoming critically ill when infected with COVID-19 to get vaccinated and boosted amidst a global scare of the new highly contagious variant named XBB.1.5.

The XBB family of variants caught virologists’ attention a few months ago because it contains more mutations to evade immunity than any other variant. It has a mutation that global virologists believe is helping the virus better bind to cells and thus be more transmissible.

The new XBB.1.5 variant was first recorded in the United Kingdom in September but has since spread to other countries including the United States where it’s currently the most predominant strain.  In Africa, the variant was discovered in gene sequencing carried out by researchers at Stellenbosch University in South Africa from a sample collected on December 27.

Speaking to URN in an interview on Monday, Dr Misaki Wayengera, a Virologist based at Makerere University said that sequencing done at the  Uganda Virus Research Institute is still showing omicron BA.4 and BA.5  to be the predominant strain transmitting. He, however, warned that it’s only a matter of time before the country will record its first XBB.1.5 case since this is currently the most highly transmissible strain flagged by the World Health Organization.

As a precautionary measure, Dr wayengera urges people living with chronic diseases such as HIV, Sickle Cell anaemia and non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, cancer and heart disease to get vaccinated and boosted for those that have already taken their initial doses.

The doctor notes that data is showing them people testing positive for XBB.1.5 are presenting with symptoms similar to those of other omicron sub-variants which include flu-like symptoms, sore throat and muscle pains.

However, the Ministry of Health (MOH) has already announced an increase in the COVID-19 positivity rate in Uganda where by the end of 2022, Health Minister Dr Jane Ruth Aceng said the percentage of people testing positive was raising to two per cent yet this had fallen to below 0.5 per cent earlier in the year.

According to Dr Daniel Kyabayinze, the Director of Public Health at the Ministry of Health, currently, the majority of the people being tested are travellers and a few walk into clinics with suspicious symptoms, something that may not give a representative picture of what is actually happening across the country. 

Kyabayinze, however, told URN on Monday that they are conducting sequencing in 25 per cent of the samples testing positive and with high viral load.

He also reveals that while a lot of people developed symptoms similar to COVID-19 in December, their latest data shows, it was only common flu and not COVID-19.

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