After many months of declining numbers, the U.S. is experiencing a late-summer COVID-19 surge. Cases and hospitalizations are once again increasing, and so is the presence of what’s being called Eris (officially EG.5), a new version of the coronavirus that recently eclipsed the former top runner, Arcturus (XBB.1.16).
The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows EG.5 accounts for 20.6 percent of COVID infections, while a strain known as FL.1.5.1 is responsible for 13.3 percent of cases. An alphabet soup of other omicron variant spinoffs make up the rest of current infections.
The newfound dominance of Eris “raises the point that this virus continues to circulate, and it continues to change,” the World Health Organization’s Maria Van Kerkhove said at a July news conference.
The good news, though, is that the precautions we relied on during the pandemic — such as frequent handwashing, wearing masks and avoiding crowded indoor spaces — still work. And experts say people at higher risk of complications from COVID, such as those with compromised immune systems, may want to consider reinstating some of them.
Additionally, a new round of COVID-19 vaccines designed to combat these latest variants should be available this fall — some experts predict by mid-September. Vaccine maker Moderna said in an Aug. 17 news release that its vaccine generated a strong immune response against EG.5 and FL.1.5.1.
Eris was first detected in February and has since been tracked in 51 countries, according to an Aug. 9 report from the WHO. And its global prevalence is increasing, the WHO notes. In mid-June, it was to blame for about 7.6 percent of global COVID-19 cases; by mid-July, that share jumped to 17.4 percent, leading the WHO to designate EG.5 a “variant of interest.”
Despite this latest subvariant’s growth advantage over its predecessors, experts say that so far, Eris doesn’t appear to make people sicker than its sibling strains.
Officials do note, however, that the subvariant’s characteristics may cause a rise in cases. And while we can’t say with certainty that Eris is behind the bump in cases in the U.S., “there’s a reasonable likelihood that the slight increase that we’re seeing in COVID activity is very possibly related to the coincidental finding of a new variant that is starting to become the predominant one,” says Steven J. Lawrence, M.D., professor of medicine in the division of infectious diseases at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.