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How COVID vaccines are holding up against new FLiRT variants

Scientists have warned of a “summer wave” of COVID-19 infections after the detection of a new, highly transmissible group of omicron subvariants in the United States. But will our vaccines resist these new strains?

Dubbed FLiRT, the new class of COVID subvariants spread rapidly in the United States, with one strain, KP.2, becoming the dominant strain of the coronavirus in the United States by May 11, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States.

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Their nickname, FLiRT, derives from the position of mutations in their spike proteins, projections on the surface of the virus that allow them to enter our cells. These proteins are also used as targets by our immune system and vaccines.

So what do these mutations mean for our immunity against new strains?

Covid-19 vaccine
A doctor holds a vial of coronavirus vaccine. A new class of COVID subvariants called FLiRT has spread rapidly in the United States


“The FLiRT subvariants are the direct descendants of JN.1, the previous subvariant that has dominated the world since the end of last year,” said Adrian Esterman, an epidemiologist and professor of biostatistics at the University of South Australia. News week. “FLiRT subvariants are more infectious than JN.1 due to a small number of mutations in the spike protein that better help the virus evade our immune system.”

However, despite these differences, Esterman said, current vaccines would still provide some level of immunity against these variants.

“Even though the FLiRT subvariants are now quite genetically distant from the XBB subvariants (the current vaccine is based on XBB.1.5), the vaccine will still give some cross-immunity against them,” he said. “(However,) a new vaccine will be available around September, based on either JN.1 or one of the FLiRT sub-variants, which will provide much better protection.”

News week previously spoke with Lawrence Young, professor of virology and molecular oncology at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom. He acknowledged that while currently available vaccines may not be “perfectly suitable,” they are still likely to offer some level of protection.

So, should we be worried about FLiRT?

“It’s early days, with new FLiRT subvariants only being reported in the last couple of weeks,” Esterman said. “The current understanding of the severity of these sub-variants could therefore change. (However,) it appears that we will see a similar trend to that observed when JN.1 struck. Due to the increase in transmission, I m “Expect that the number of cases, COVID-19 hospitalizations and COVID-19 deaths will increase, but nowhere near as high as in early 2023.”

From what we know so far, he added, most infected adults experience the new variants as a typical flu-like illness from which they will recover within a few days. “Probably the biggest concern is the possibility of long COVID, especially after repeated infections,” Esterman said.

Those who are more vulnerable may still be at risk of serious infections.

“Vulnerable people, that is, those who are elderly or have underlying health conditions, are at risk of serious illness,” Esterman said. “They should make sure they are up to date with their COVID-19 booster shots and start wearing an N95/P2 face mask when on public transport or when shopping, etc. They should also have a plan in place with their family doctor to ensure that they have timely access to antivirals.

If you get a respiratory infection, he added, it’s important to stay home as much as possible to avoid spreading it to others.

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