India has seen a consistent decline in Covid-19 cases for several weeks but after the emergence of the Omicron XE variant in Mumbai on Wednesday, many are fearing it could be a warning sign.

A 50-year-old woman who had a travel history to South Africa in February was tested positive for Omicron XE in Mumbai. She was asymptomatic with no comorbidities. She was also vaccinated with both vaccine doses.

Though the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) statement on Wednesday said it's a confirmed case of Omicron XE, the health ministry has tried to allay fears, saying it does not seem to be an 'XE' variant of Covid-19. To confirm this development, the National Institute of Virology, Pune, will now analyse the sample and submit its observations.

"FastQ files in respect of the sample, which is being said to be #XEVariant were analysed in detail by genomic experts of INSACOG who have inferred that the genomic constitution of this variant does not correlate with the genomic picture of 'XE' variant," a health ministry tweet sent out via PIB said.

How dangerous is Omicron XE

Omicron XE is the hybrid combination of both sub-variants, BA.1 and BA.2, of a highly infectious Covid variant called Omicron. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has said it’s tracking the movement of this new variant.

This new Covid-19 variant is causing a new wave of infections in the U.K., where 1 in 13 people are estimated to have been infected with coronavirus in the past week alone, the data from U.K.'s statistics agency shows.

The capital city of England has also seen the highest level of Covid infections in March ever since the start of the pandemic, primarily due to waning immunity and prevalence of the highly infectious Omicron BA.2 variant.

All this comes at a time when the U.K.'s Prime Minister Boris Johnson launched the 'Living with Covid' plan for the country.

In its statement on March 25, the U.K.Health Security Agency (UKHSA) said a total of 637 cases of XE – a recombinant of Omicron BA.1 and BA.2 – have been confirmed in the UK so far. The earliest of these has a specimen date of January 19, 2022, it said.

Severity level of Omicron XE

Health officials at the WHO say Omicron XE could be 10% more infectious than all other Covid variants or mutations out there. “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. She added the WHO is analysing this new variant.

So far, it has not shown any signs of severity. Apart from the UK, Thailand and New Zealand have also detected this Covid variant.

Symptoms of Omicron XE

A recombinant variant occurs when an individual becomes infected with 2 or more variants at the same time, resulting in a mixing of their genetic material within the patient’s body. This is not an unusual occurrence and several recombinant SARS-CoV-2 variants have been identified over the course of the pandemic.

Maria Van Kerkhove said the variant of concern Omicron is circulating around the world, with many sublimages. “You have heard of BA.1 and BA.2. We now have a recombinant of both BA.1 and BA.2, and this is being called XE," she said.

Experts say some symptoms associated with Omicron XE are coughing, loss of smell and taste, fever, sore throat, skin irritation and gastrointestinal distress. People with comorbidities or severe infections could also face fatigue, dizziness and muscle soreness.

On how the world can save itself from emerging mutations, she said while there is some waning immunity over time, Covid-19 vaccines remain incredibly effective to prevent severe disease and death.

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