WHO designates ‘Eris’ and related COVID strains as variants of interest as infections and hospitalizations rise.

WHO designates 'Eris' and related COVID strains as variants of interest as infections and hospitalizations rise.

COVID Variant

The Rise of the EG.5 Variant and its Impact on COVID-19

The World Health Organization (WHO) recently upgraded the EG.5 COVID variant from a “variant under monitoring” to a “variant of interest.” With its steady global growth, EG.5 has been detected in 45 countries so far. The largest number of EG.5 samples have come from China, followed by the United States, Korea, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Singapore, Australia, Portugal, and Spain.

In the United States, EG.5 and its spin-offs have become the most common COVID variants, accounting for 17.3% of cases as of recent projections by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This rise in EG.5 cases is being accompanied by an increase in COVID hospitalizations, which have risen nearly 13% over the past two weeks according to CDC data.

The Concerns and Growing Tensions

Experts are particularly concerned about the EG.5 “child” variant, EG.5.1, also known as “Eris.” Currently responsible for nearly 8.5% of sequenced cases in the United States, EG.5.1 is also gaining traction in Europe and Asia. Testing and sequencing of new variants have been at all-time lows, making it challenging to determine if EG.5.1 is fueling the rise in cases. However, as molecular medicine professor Dr. Eric Topol noted, “it certainly does not look benign.”

The potential threat of EG.5.1 has led some locations like New York City to already see upticks in COVID-19 cases. Talia Quandelacy, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health, warns that similar increases in cases might occur in other parts of the country if precautions are not taken. Furthermore, there are concerns that the rise of EG.5.1 might coincide with the upcoming flu season, exacerbating the situation.

Potential Impact and Speculations

While it is too early to determine whether EG.5.1 differs symptomatically from other Omicron strains, Professor Ryan Gregory suggests that it may not cause a massive wave of cases. He humorously likens the past year’s increase in cases to a rising sea level rather than tsunamis.

However, the lack of clarity surrounding the impact of EG.5.1 and the delayed distribution of new boosters targeting the XBB.1.5 strain are raising concerns. The new boosters, which may not be ready until late September, are expected to work against EG.5 and related variants. The CDC has yet to issue recommendations regarding who should receive the new jab and when.

Challenges Ahead

Dr. Topol is particularly worried about the vulnerable populations, such as the immunocompromised and the elderly. For them, the current booster available—the Omicron BA.4/BA.5 booster—is not as closely matched to the circulating strains as the upcoming booster will be. The delay in distributing the new boosters raises concerns as schools reopen and wastewater levels rise, potentially leading to a brewing wave of new cases.

Furthermore, there is also anxiety that many Americans may choose to forgo the new boosters. A survey conducted by the CDC revealed that only 27% of adults and 18.5% of adolescents had received an Omicron booster as of late last year. With the WHO and CDC declaring an end to the pandemic emergency state, even fewer people may opt for the new vaccines.

Conclusion

As the EG.5 variant gains prominence globally, health organizations and governments need to closely monitor its growth and take appropriate measures. The rise of EG.5.1 and its potential impact on COVID-19 cases raise concerns about the already burdened healthcare systems. The delayed release of new boosters targeting the XBB.1.5 strain adds another layer of uncertainty to the fight against the virus. It is crucial for individuals to stay vigilant, follow public health guidelines, and make informed decisions when it comes to vaccinations to mitigate the risks posed by these emerging variants.