Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador are now reporting cases of the XBB.1.5 variant of the virus that causes COVID-19, reflecting a spread being reported south of the border.
Nova Scotia Health and Wellness confirmed the presence of two cases of the variant — also known as Kraken — while Newfoundland and Labrador’s Health Department reported the province’s first case Thursday.
Spokespeople for health departments in the two provinces said there’s so far no indication the sub-variant causes more severe illness compared with earlier mutations. However, they said it is among the most transmissible strains to date of the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Meanwhile, prior mutations are still circulating and causing illness and death around the region.
Nova Scotia’s main health agency reported a total of 20 COVID-19 deaths in its first update of 2023, with one of the deaths occurring between Dec. 20 and Jan. 2, and the remaining 19 deaths from an unspecified time period.
The health departments of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have not yet reported XBB.1.5 cases.
David Kelvin, the Canada Research Chair in translational vaccinology at Dalhousie University, said in an interview Friday one of his concerns about the continuing emergence of sub-variants is the risk it poses to elders.
While noting the research on XBB.1.5 is still in its early stages, Kelvin said his early worry is that the sub-variant might pose threats to older citizens as the immunity they’ve developed from vaccines and the booster shots wanes.
The new sub-variant’s ability to evade immune systems comes at a time when the health system is struggling, with most hospitals in the region reporting shortages of beds and health workers in recent weeks.
“The elderly and others at high risk are going to be infected and they’re going to have to compete for the same hospital beds that have grown scarcer since the pandemic,” Kelvin said.
The professor of microbiology and immunology said “the sub-variants show mutations that have immune evasion.”
“This means there are new mutations that haven’t been seen before by our immune system either through vaccines or prior infections,” he said. “The variant has a mutation which can’t be recognized by (the) immune system if vaccinated or if you had prior infection.”
Kelvin said he expects Canada will follow the trend in the United States, where the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention projected that the Kraken variant will soon reach about 40 per cent of COVID-19 cases.
Nova Scotia’s public health division is recommending citizens keep up-to-date with COVID-19 boosters, avoid social contact if sick and wear a mask in crowded, indoor spaces.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 6, 2023
© 2023 The Canadian Press