An ominously nicknamed new COVID-causing variant is spreading quickly across the globe

An ominously nicknamed new COVID-causing variant is spreading quickly across the globe.

EG.5.1 is another subvariant of the Omicron SARS-CoV-2 virus. It has been nicknamed ‘Eris’ after the Greek goddess of discord. That’s possibly a poor naming choice for a disease-causing pathogen that has sewn so much discord to global health since the end of 2019.

Eris was added to the World Health Organization’s list of monitored variants in July and has since grown in prevalence in the Northern Hemisphere.

Data uploaded to the global viral genome database GISAID indicates the variant accounted for about 1 in 10 COVID-19 infections in the USA and UK in the past month. It comes as the UK saw an increase in positive COVID-19 tests since the start of July, with an estimated 30% jump in cases in the past month according to the ZOE Health Study.

Estimates from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate EG.5 lineages account for more COVID-19 cases than any other in the United States.

The subvariant was first detected in Australia in late April. The emergence of many cases of a new variant in the Northern Hemisphere has typically stirred trepidation in recent years, but some experts hope the impact in Australia will be reduced due to vaccination or high overall exposure to previous forms of the virus from earlier infections.

“SARS-CoV-2 is now endemic and new variants will keep emerging,” says Dr Abrar Chughtai, director of UNSW’s Master of Infectious Diseases intelligence program. “EG.5.1 may eventually replace existing circulating variants in Australia, however, I think EG.5.1 will be less likely to cause a large epidemic in Australia.

“However, we should be vigilant and should increase surveillance and sequencing to detect and monitor the new strain. Vaccination should be continued, particularly in vulnerable groups.”

While not yet available in Australia, a vaccine based on the similar XBB 1.5 variant (nicknamed ‘Kraken’) is anticipated for the end of the year. 

Health authorities no longer consider COVID-19 a global health emergency, with the WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus lifting the virus’s emergency declaration in May this year.

At present, almost all eligible Australians have received the first course of an approved COVID-19 vaccine, though these were mostly administered more than a year ago. Three million booster doses have been administered this year.

“Most Australians are ‘over’ the pandemic, and don’t care that another subvariant is on the increase,” says Professor Adrian Esterman, a biostatistician at the University of South Australia.

“However, it is a timely reminder to the elderly and other vulnerable people to wear an N95 face mask when out and about and to get up to date with their booster shots. Sadly, less than 50% of elderly Australians are up to date with their COVID-19 boosters.”

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