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What You Need to Know About FLiRT, the Latest COVID Variants

Experts caution not to let down your guard just because winter is behind us

spinner image a pair of binoculars zooming in on the new COVID variant FLiRT
AARP (Source: Shutterstock(2))

With national levels of respiratory illness declining and warmer weather moving in, COVID-19 may no longer be top of mind. But don’t let it slip too far, health experts warn.

“COVID is down, but it has not gone away. I would say it’s continuing to smolder out there,” says infectious disease expert William Schaffner, M.D., a professor of medicine at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

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Unlike influenza, which Schaffner says “virtually disappears” during the summer, COVID-19 keeps circulating. In fact, federal data shows that historically, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations spike somewhat during the summer months.

One thing that could fuel another surge this summer: a new variant, one that is better able to escape our immune defenses from vaccines and previous infections. Right now, all eyes in the U.S. are on a few new strains — including KP.1.1, KP.2 and KP.3 — from a group known as the FLiRT variants. Together these three variants make up roughly half of infections in the U.S.   

What we know about FLiRT

No doubt we’ve seen some strange nicknames for variants throughout the COVID-19 pandemic — Arcturus, Pirola and Eris, to name a few. According to an explainer posted by the Infectious Diseases Society of America, FLiRT is an acronym for some of the variants’ spike protein mutations.

The FLiRT variants, which are in the omicron family, appear to be highly transmissible, meaning they spread easily. However so far, they do not appear to cause more severe disease, Schaffner says.

The “slight caution” about the FLiRT variants, Schaffner says, is that from a genetic perspective, they are a little more “distant from their parents.” That means immunity from previous infections and vaccines “may not protect perfectly” against an infection with a FLiRT variant, he notes.

The Infectious Diseases Society of America says vaccination remains effective in preventing a severe case of COVID-19, and vaccination with the most recently updated COVID-19 shot produces antibodies that can recognize JN.1, a close relative of the FLiRT variants. 

Eric Topol, founder and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, wrote in a recent newsletter post that “we could see a wavelet but not a significant new wave of infections” these next few months, as a result of the FLiRT variants. “We can’t necessarily count on that optimistic perspective. Time will tell,” he wrote. 


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Still, virologist Andy Pekosz said in a recent interview with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that even small waves can have a big impact on vulnerable populations, including older adults who are at greater risk for severe disease from COVID.

Advice for older adults 

In light of the new variants, Schaffner says older adults and people with underlying medical conditions should get a spring dose of the COVID-19 vaccine if they have not done so already.

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Health officials in February recommended that adults 65 and older who received the updated COVID-19 vaccine in the fall roll up their sleeves again for the shot to strengthen their protection against the virus — and it’s not too late to get it. It will “give you the best protection until September or October, when we once again will update the COVID vaccine,” Schaffner says.

Many people think of summer as safer since more activities are outdoors. However, Schaffner points out, it’s also a big time for travel. Plus, summer heat can have the opposite effect and drive people indoors, particularly if there’s air-conditioning. So high-risk individuals should continue to take precautions, Topol says.

“It’s very important to recognize that although we would like to put COVID behind us, COVID is with us,” Schaffner says. “It’s now part of our ecology. It’s not going to just completely disappear.”

Editor's note: This story, first published on May 9, 2024, has been updated to reflect new variant proportions.

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