New COVID ‘Eris’ variant evolving to be more dangerous

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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:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sore throat
  • 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.

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.

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.

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.”

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