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There’s a new COVID-19 variant dominating infections in the U.S. EG.5 — or “Eris,” as it’s been nicknamed — was identified in China in February and detected in the U.S. in April, and now accounts for more than 17% of COVID-19 cases nationwide, which is the most of any variant.
Here’s what you need to know about the new variant.
How do symptoms compare to other COVID-19 variants?
“We haven't seen a radical departure that [EG.5] is going to cause new symptoms or that it's going to look a lot different,” Dr. David Alain Wohl, an infectious diseases professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells Yahoo Life. “We don't see anything that indicates that the virus is evolving to be more dangerous.”
EG.5 is a subvariant within the Omicron family of coronaviruses, so it’s pretty closely related to the XBB variant that’s been circulating for a while and was dominant months earlier. You can’t tell which variant you have just based on symptoms (that requires genomic sequencing, which isn’t a routine part of clinical care). But you can expect symptoms from EG.5 to look a lot like what we’ve come to know from other COVID-19 variants, including:
Stuffy or runny nose
New loss of taste or smell
“We're at a very, very early stage of the game,” Dr. Jessica Justman, an epidemiologist at Columbia University School of Public Health and senior technical director at ICAP, tells Yahoo Life. “But from everything I'm seeing and reading and hearing, there's no reason to think that this variant is likely to be more virulent, to cause more severe symptoms, to cause more hospitalizations or more deaths than any of the other more recent variants.”
The World Health Organization has classified EG.5 as a “variant of interest,” but said it doesn’t seem to pose any more of a public health threat than other variants. But while EG.5 doesn’t appear to be any more dangerous, experts say it isn’t any weaker either. If your symptoms from EG.5 seem less severe than what you experienced with a previous COVID-19 illness, it’s not because the virus is losing strength — it could be the result of your own built-up resilience.
“It's very hard to interpret new symptoms with a new subvariant, because not only is the virus different, but we're different. We have more immunity,” Wohl explains. “If you have more immunity because you had Omicron before, or you had the vaccine, or you had a booster, that changes how the virus is going to impact you. So you will likely see fewer respiratory infections deep down in the lungs.”
Is Eris more or less contagious?
A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told Politico that “there is no evidence indicating EG.5 is able to spread more easily, and currently available treatments and vaccines are expected to continue to be effective against this variant.”
So why the increase in cases? Every year, we’ve seen a slight rise in COVID cases in the summer, so experts say the recent uptick isn’t too surprising.
“If you look at a graph of hospitalizations going back over three years, this is the smallest uptick so far,” Justman says. “[There were] 9,000 admissions in the last week in the United States due to COVID, as of July 29. Last summer, around the same time, it was 45,000. So it's just a completely different order of magnitude. This is a very small uptick.”
Justman points out that with the ubiquity of at-home test kits that can be used outside a doctor’s office, new case counts likely underestimate how many new cases are out there and aren’t as reliable as higher-quality data, such as hospitalizations and emergency room visits. So it could take a while before we get the full picture of how prevalent EG.5 really is.
“The way COVID works is, first there's a rise in the number of cases, then there's a rise in hospitalizations, usually between a week or two weeks after the rise in cases. And then the deaths — if there's going to be an increase in deaths — will take at least another couple of weeks,” she says. “So it's a little too soon to be confident that this is not going to have a higher mortality rate, but there's no evidence yet to say that it does have a higher mortality rate.”
Will vaccines and boosters protect me from EG.5?
Although the bivalent vaccine currently in use was designed to work against the BA.5 subvariant, which accounted for most COVID cases last summer, Wohl says it still appears to offer some protection, because there’s just enough overlap between these Omicron subvariants.
The new vaccine that will be available this fall is designed to combat XBB, which is one subvariant removed from EG.5.
“It's going to be really hard to completely keep up with every single dominant variant that's circulating on the planet, but XBB will be a step closer to getting us a kind of protection against what's circulating, at least right now,” Wohl says.
While the ideal vaccine would make us totally impervious to infection, breakthrough cases can happen even among fully vaccinated individuals. But experts say the key thing to keep in mind is that vaccines are an important defense against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
“Vaccine and boosters always help,” Justman says. “They increase your antibody levels, they give a reminder, a tune up to your cell-mediated immunity, particularly your T cells, so that they're all in a better position to combat any variant.”
What does this new variant tell us about future variants and COVID-19 going forward?
As with COVID seasons past, we should brace for a bigger surge of infections in the late fall and winter. And because the SARS-CoV-2 virus mutates so rapidly, Justman says we’re likely to continue to see new variants emerge in the future.
“I'm really glad we're paying attention, because one day, a variant could or will come along that is different,” Wohl says. “A variant will come along that our immunity just doesn't actually recognize as well, either from previous infections or from our vaccines. That's why we have to be nimble.”