May 9, 2024 - Health

New COVID variants are a reminder of coronavirus reality

Illustration of a covid particle reflected in a rearview mirror

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

To most Americans, COVID-19 now ranks with everyday risks like reckless driving, smoking and drinking too much. But the emergence of new variants called FLiRT is a fresh reminder that the coronavirus still is circulating and evolving, even with hospitalizations at record lows.

Why it matters: As much as the public wants to move on — and has moved on — from the pandemic, uncertainty about the coronavirus' evolution means those who remain the most vigilant can't fully shake the pandemic experience.

  • That uncertainty is compounded by the recent phaseout of mandated hospital reporting of respiratory virus activity, and the demise of other metrics that helped track disease spread during the pandemic's dark days.
  • The COVID outlook, at least right now, is the best it's been in four years.
  • But there's still the nagging fear that the combination of a few unfortunate mutations and a checked-out public could conspire to fill up emergency rooms, though no one expects we'll again approach anything like the worst of the pandemic.

State of play: Weekly COVID-19 hospitalizations hit their lowest level since the start of the pandemic, with 5,098 in the most recent week for which data is available. That's about one-seventh the height of this winter's COVID wave that much of the public shrugged off.

  • A new variant, KP.2, accounts for a quarter of U.S. cases and just overtook JN.1 as the dominant strain, while a sister variant KP.1.1 is also rising and represents 7.5% of cases, according to the latest Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking.
  • The ongoing concern is that as people get more out of date with vaccination and the virus mutates, the likelihood of a summer wave becomes greater.
  • Less than 1 in 4 U.S. adults received the latest COVID shots made available last fall, which were targeted to earlier lineages of the omicron variant.
  • Under guidance the CDC updated in March, people who test positive no longer have to isolate at home for five days. As with the flu, those who test positive and have been free of fever for at least 24 hours without the use of drugs can leave home.

The latest: The FLiRT variants don't appear to cause different or more serious symptoms. They're descended from Omicron and have mutations in the spike protein that make them more easily transmitted.

  • Experts continue to expect that old at-home COVID tests — to the extent that people are still using them — will work, and that available vaccines will continue to protect against serious illness.
  • A meeting of Food and Drug Administration advisers to decide on the formulation of this fall's updated COVID shots, originally scheduled for next week, was just pushed back to early June to allow for more time to collect data on circulating variants. The delay isn't expected to affect the fall rollout, FDA said.
  • This year's vaccine cut the risk of illness in half, initial data showed.
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