May 13, 2024 - Health

New COVID variants

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, 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.

State of play: 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • 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.
  • The ongoing concern is that as people get more out of date with vaccination and the virus mutates, the likelihood of a summer wave becomes greater.

The big picture: Around 31% of San Francisco residents were up to date on their vaccinations as of last week.

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