Omicron XJ variant: what is the new hybrid Covid strain, where are there cases, and how contagious is it?

The new variant is a hybrid of other Covid strains and was first detected in Finland last month

A new variant of Covid appears to be spreading as cases have been reported in two more countries.

The recombinant variant, named Omicron XJ, was initially detected in Finland last month but has since been found in Italy and in Thailand.

Recombinants occur when two Covid strains meet while multiplying and then evolve by sharing their genome or characteristics to form a new mutation.

Omicron XJ was initially detected in Finland in March (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)Omicron XJ was initially detected in Finland in March (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)
Omicron XJ was initially detected in Finland in March (Composite: Kim Mogg / JPIMedia)

Where has Omicron XJ been found?

The XJ variant is a combination of the BA.1 and BA.2 Omicron strains and was first detected in Finland at the end of March.

A case has since been found in Italy, and validated by the Istituto Superiore di Sanit, and in Thailand.

The country’s Medical Sciences Department found the XJ genetic code in a 34-year-old vaccinated delivery driver who was diagnosed with Covid in Bangkok.

The department’s director Supakit Sirilak told the Bangkok Post: “It is highly likely to be the XJ recombinant. He met many people due to the nature of his job. That made him vulnerable to infection.”

Dr Supakit said the variant detected is definitely not the Omicron XE variant, which was first detected in the UK on 19 January, adding that there was no evidence the two new recombinants were more dangerous than the existing variants already spreading through the country.

Is the variant more contagious?

The Omicron XJ variant is thought to have mutations which could allow it to spread more easily and quickly than the BA.2 strain, although there is still limited information on the variant’s ability to evade vaccines and the human immune response.

It is also still unclear if the variant causes more serious disease than previous strains, but experts say there is no evidence it is more dangerous at this stage.

Could Covid restrictions be reintroduced?

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Friday (8 April) that future lockdowns could not be ruled out if another Covid strain was found to be more dangerous and could cause more serious disease.

However, Downing Street has rejected a call by NHS leaders to reintroduce greater mask-wearing and a push to encourage mixing outdoors.

The NHS Confederation urged the government to reconsider its “living with Covid” plan after warning high rates of coronavirus infections are having a “major impact” on the health service, which is facing pressures as it would in a “bad winter” well into spring.

It urged ministers to reinvigorate its public information campaign on Covid, including a renewed focus on mask wearing and encouraging people to meet outdoors and in well-ventilated places whenever possible.

Downing Street rejected the proposals but said that it was “alive to the pressures” that the NHS is facing.

A No 10 spokeswoman said: “There is no change to our guidance and our living with Covid plan still stands.

“Thanks to a combination of vaccination and treatment and our better understanding of the virus we are now able to manage it as we do with other respiratory infections, so that remains the case with our approach.

“But obviously we continue to monitor any changes in the behaviour of the virus.”