Swiss pharma giant Roche on Thursday launched a new Covid test designed to help researchers find the highly contagious omicron offshoot XBB.1.5—unofficially nicknamed “Kraken”—a mutant that is better at skirting immune defenses, rapidly moving across the U.S. and quickly spreading to other countries.
The specialized test targets a unique mutation found in the XBB.1.5 omicron subvariant, Roche said.
The test uses PCR—a technique to amplify genetic material from samples like nasal swabs that is considered one of the most accurate and reliable forms of testing available—and is only available for research use at the moment.
The specialized tool will help researchers track the virus’ spread and keep tabs on its evolution, the drugmaker said.
Matt Sause, CEO of Roche Diagnostics, said the test will also provide scientists and doctors with insights into the new strain that can help them understand how it differs from other variants and the impact it may have on public health.
Such insights could lay the groundwork for experts to make predictions about the virus’ spread and adapt treatment strategies, the firm added.
XBB.1.5 still fits within the omicron family and has not been given a new variant name as a result. The absence of a catchy, more-accessible name led to the variant being unofficially nicknamed “Kraken” online, which has managed to take off. Experts believe it is the product of two different omicron variants fusing after infecting the same person and the resulting hybrid appears to be better able at evading immune defenses. Owing to its recent emergence, data on its ability to cause more severe disease is limited, but available evidence suggests it does not, though its transmissibility does increase the risk of it reaching a vulnerable person in the first place. Experts have repeatedly stressed the importance of vaccination to protect against the transmissible variant, particularly with an updated booster shot, and data consistently shows the shots are safe and slash the risk of severe disease, hospitalization and death. Despite the repeated entreaties, CDC data suggests uptake of the new shots is poor, with just 15% of the population having had one. Around a fifth of the country has still not had a single Covid shot.
What To Watch For
XBB.1.5 is quickly spreading in the U.S. It was first detected in fall and already makes up around half of all Covid cases in the U.S., according to CDC estimates. In mid-December, the CDC estimated the variant accounted for less than 5% of cases. Some regions have been harder hit and in the Northeast it accounts for around 85% of cases. The virus has also been detected in Europe and the U.K., where experts have said it is spreading faster than existing variants and expressed concern it may trigger another wave of cases.
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