India's economy has opened up to the pre-Covid level and no restrictions are in place right now as the country is now reporting less than 1,000 new cases. But, the confusion over the reported detection of a new sub-variant of Omicron, the Covid variant that caused the third wave in India, has posed a fresh threat. The mutant subvariant XE — combination of Omicron BA.1 strain and BA.2 stealth sub lineage — is the third subvariant of Omicron, and is believed to be highly infectious.
The WHO has warned that it's 10% more transmissible than other variants and sub-variants of Covid-19, though there's little evidence right now as there are only a handful of Covid cases associated with it, mostly in the U.K.
In India, Omicron XE's emergence has created a bit of confusion in the minds of people. It all started with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation's (BMC) statement on Wednesday, which confirmed a new case of Omicron XE was detected in Mumbai.
"Results of 11th test under the Covid virus genetic formula determination - 228 or 99.13% (230 samples) patients detected with Omicron. One patient is affected by the 'XE' variant and another is affected by the 'Kapa' variant of Covid-19," a statement by the Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation said.
The central government was quick to respond, junking BMC's claims. The health ministry immediately put out tweets, saying it "does not suggest the presence of the new variant".
The ministry further said the FastQ files in respect of the sample, which is being said to be 'XE' variant were analysed in detail by genomic experts of INSACOG, who have "inferred the genomic constitution of this variant does not correlate with the genomic picture of 'XE' variant".
To further analyse the sample and clear confusion over the possibility of the presence of a new Covid variant in India, the government has also asked the National Institute of Virology, Pune, to submit its observations on this.
The empowered group of secretaries, who are tasked with monitoring and coordinating the country's Covid response, have also scheduled a meeting to review the situation for early detection of emerging variants.
To enhance surveillance and detect emerging waves at local levels, like in the case of the polio campaign in the country, the Indian SARS-CoV-2 Genomic Consortium (INSACOG), a network of 35 genome sequencing labs across the country, is monitoring sewage load across 15 states. The high density areas will be the prime focus, and these labs will test effluents in these areas for early detection of any community transmission.
But should you worry?
Experts have said surveillance of the XE subvariant is important though there's no reason to worry. Natural herd immunity and additional protection provided by booster Covid shots should wane its impact, if at all it emerges in the country.
First detected in the U.K. on January 19, Omicron XE has spread to Thailand as well. In the U.K., there are 637 confirmed cases of XE or recombinant virus.
Moreover, XE is not the only recombinant subvariant out there. Before this, Deltacron had emerged from Delta and BA.1 infections. Health officials at the WHO also say preliminary data shows Omicron XE could be 10% more infectious than Omicron BA.2, which was 80% more contagious than BA.1, but calls for deeper analysis before jumping on to any conclusion.
“Based on the initial analysis, there's a slight growth advantage of this recombinant over BA.2, about a 10% increase in transmissibility, not 10 times as has been reported by some,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, infectious disease epidemiologist and COVID-19 technical lead at the WHO.