The XBB.1.5 variant of COVID-19, also known as Kraken, has been detected by whole genome sequencing in New Zealand.
The Institute of Environmental Science and Research (ESR) reported the whole genome sequencing results for two COVID-19 cases with XBB.1.5 late last week.
The list of new subvariants appearing within New Zealand is lengthy and growing. Many of these new subvariants are identified by their mutations, but it can take weeks or months to determine whether these mutations will allow a subvariant to out-compete others circulating in the community. At the early stage of a new variant being identified in New Zealand, it is difficult to predict whether and when it will become established in the community.
The detection of XBB.1.5 is not unexpected, following its recent detection in Australia and globally, and our COVID-19 response accounts for the emergence of new variants.
So far, most Omicron variants have not demonstrated a change in severity of the disease, and there is no evidence at this stage to indicate XBB.1.5 causes more severe disease compared to other variants. The proportion of COVID-19 cases in the USA caused by the XBB.1.5 sub-lineage has been rapidly increasing in recent weeks, after having first been detected there in late October 2022. XBB.1.5 appears to be outcompeting other XBB sub-lineages and BQ.1.1 in the USA. It remains unknown how XBB1.5 will compete against other variants in a New Zealand context, and whether this could affect the level of COVID-19 circulating in the community in the coming months.
Relative to many other parts of the world, New Zealand currently has a high level of immunity based on high vaccine uptake, combined with a recent wave of infections (so-called ‘hybrid immunity’).
Vaccines are still expected to provide protection against severe disease from XBB.1.5, particularly in those who have received boosters. We encourage people to get their vaccine and booster doses when they fall due.
If you test positive, stay home and isolate. If you think you may be eligible for antiviral medicines, call your pharmacist or usual healthcare provider and ask for a phone appointment to talk about whether antivirals are right for you. You can have the medicine delivered by friends, whānau or the pharmacy’s delivery service. Antiviral medicines must be started within 5 days of becoming sick with COVID-19. Have RATs on hand so you can test yourself as soon as you feel sick.