India reports first case of coronavirus variant XE: Five things to know

There is no evidence yet that the XE variant is any more serious in disease severity, with all Omicron variants so far shown to be less severe.
Representative image graphic of coronavirus
Representative image graphic of coronavirus
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India has reported its first case of the new coronavirus variant, which has been called ‘XE’. XE was first found in the UK and is a mutation of the Omicron variant. Early indications suggest it could be around 10 per cent more transmissible than other Omicron mutations, but there is no evidence that XE is any more serious in disease severity, with all Omicron variants so far shown to be less severe.

The first case of the more transmissible coronavirus variant XE was detected in Mumbai on Wednesday, a civic health official said. It is to be noted that the patient had tested positive a month ago, in March, and the variant has been detected now after genome sequencing. According to reports, the patient is a 50-year-old woman, who was asymptomatic and had no comorbidity. She had arrived from South Africa on February 10, and on arrival had tested negative. A month later, during a routing test, she tested positive on March 2. She was quarantined, and on March 3, she tested negative.

The official added that a case of the Kappa variant was also detected, adding the results came in genome sequencing of 376 samples, the 11th batch of testing in the genome sequencing lab. Of the 230 samples from Mumbai, 228 samples are of Omicron variant, while one was found to be Kappa variant and another XE variant. The condition of the patients infected with the new variants of the virus was not serious, the official said.

Here's all you need to know about the XE variant: 

1. The XE variant is a mutation of the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron variant, referred to as a "recombinant.” As per the initial studies, the XE variant has a growth rate of 9.8 percent over that of BA.2, also known as the stealth variant because of its ability to evade detection. The World Health Organization has said the latest mutant may be more transmissible than the previous ones.

2. The UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) is studying XE a mutation of the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron strains and as of March 22, 637 XE cases had been detected in England, according to official figures. Professor Susan Hopkins, the UKHSA's chief medical advisor, said such variants are known as recombinant and usually die off "relatively quickly." "So far there is not enough evidence to draw conclusions about transmissibility, severity or vaccine effectiveness," Hopkins told The Sun.

3. As of March 16, XE had a growth rate 9.8 per cent above that of the so-called stealth BA.2 Omicron variant already known to be highly transmissible, the UKHSA said. The agency cautioned that "as this estimate has not remained consistent as new data have been added, it cannot yet be interpreted as an estimate of growth advantage for the recombinant."

4. According to the agency, while there are signs of community transmission of XE in England, it remains less than 1 per cent of the totally sequenced coronavirus cases. The XE variant has also been detected in Thailand and New Zealand. 

5. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said further data is required before more can be said about the mutation. It said: "Early-day estimates indicate a community growth rate advantage of 10 per cent as compared to BA.2. However, this finding requires further confirmation. XE belongs to the Omicron variant until significant differences in transmission and disease characteristics, including severity, may be reported."

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