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Are there any updates on COVID-19 we should know about?

COVID Variants Infectious Diseases

A: Here is what’s new in the realm of COVID-19 right now:

In a nutshell: 

➡️ There is a new COVID variant family called FLiRT that may lead to an increase in cases this summer.

➡️ Current vaccines will provide some protection against FLiRT variants.

➡️ Data so far does not suggest that FLiRT variants are more severe than prior variants. Data on long COVID risk is not available.

➡️ Current vaccines do wane over time, but continue to reduce disease severity. However, those over 65 or who are immunocompromised are eligible for a second dose this year to increase protection.

➡️ New updated vaccines targeting JN.1 will be available this fall.

There is a new variant family currently circulating, with individual variants known as KP.2, KP.3, and KP.1.1. Collectively, they have been named FLiRT. These variants are descendants of the omicron and JN.1 variants but have acquired new mutations that enable the virus to evade some prior immunity generated from vaccines or infection. Currently, data does not suggest a change in severity. It is unknown if the risk of long COVID is altered for these variants compared to earlier ones.

Data so far suggests that immune cells generated from vaccines or prior infection can still target these variants, albeit less effectively. New data also shows that protection from the updated COVID-19 vaccines waned over the time since their rollout in Fall 2023, particularly in their protection against infection. However, they do still help decrease disease severity. The general population was only recommended to receive one updated COVID-19 vaccine for the 2023/2024 season. To enhance protection, individuals aged 65 and older or those immunocompromised are eligible to receive a second vaccine dose.

The FLiRT variants have been increasing in numbers globally but the CDC dashboard currently indicates low case numbers. However, certain regions are starting to see an uptick of cases, possibly signaling a summer wave.

Viruses mutate, so the emergence of new variants is not unexpected. This is why we are likely transitioning to an annual COVID-19 vaccine schedule that enables updated vaccines for new variants. The FDA met this week and voted to proceed with a new fall vaccine targeting JN.1. Although FLiRT variants are somewhat different from JN.1, they share many similarities, so they will increase protection against these new variants. The updated vaccines are expected to be available sometime this fall. Exactly who will be eligible for the fall 2024 vaccine will be announced closer to rollout.

In the meanwhile, receiving a 2023/24 COVID vaccine, masking and other general infectious disease precautions can help mitigate your risk of getting sick this summer.