New COVID variant FLiRT may be more transmissible but unlikely to make us more sick : NPR

A new set of variants that scientists call “FLiRT” is emerging. NPR’s Ailsa Chang speaks with Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, about what this means for summer.


As much as we’d all like to ignore COVID, a new set of variants that scientists call FLiRT — that’s with a lowercase I — is here to remind us that COVID is still with us. The good news is that as of Friday, the CDC says the number of respiratory illnesses in the United States is low. The less good news is that the United States has often flirted with summer waves of COVID due to air-conditioned travel and gatherings. So now we’re going to bring in Dr. Ashish Jha. He is dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and former White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Welcome back to the show.

ASHISH JHA: Thank you for inviting me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK, so to what extent, would you say, do scientists care whether these FLiRT variants come with increased transmissibility or increased disease severity compared to previous variants?

JHA: Yeah. We are therefore seeing exactly what we expected, namely a continued evolution of the virus. The virus continues to evolve in an attempt to escape the wall of immunity we have built through vaccines and infections. And so this is just the latest version of that. The key questions are the ones you asked. Is it more transmissible? It is. That’s why he became more dominant.

But the really important question is: will this make people sicker than previous versions? And all the evidence we have right now is no – that whether you’ve been vaccinated or you’ve had previous infections or, for example, you’re part of the majority of Americans who have had both – everything we know about this last variant is false. that you are likely to have a mild infection and will not get particularly ill. Obviously, we have to continue to monitor each new variant, but it is quite expected.

CHANG: Okay. That sounds pretty reassuring, but are you expecting some sort of summer surge on the way? And if so, do you have any advice for people who don’t want COVID to disrupt their summer plans, even if they…

JHA: Yeah.

CHANG: …A slight infection?

JHA: Yeah. So a few thoughts: First, every summer since the start of this pandemic, we have seen a summer surge. And therefore, I expect that we will probably have a summer surge. Some of them are small waves. Some of them have been bigger. The reasons are the ones you actually listed. You know, we spend a lot more time indoors in the summer, especially in the South, where it’s very hot.

And you know, when I think about those who are at risk of complications from these infections, it’s older Americans. They are immunocompromised Americans. For them, the two big things are, number one, making sure that they’re up to date on their vaccines, because that’s going to keep them from landing in the hospital. Second, if they get an infection, we have widely available treatments. It’s really important. My elderly parents recently contracted COVID. I made sure they were taken care of. They did well. Obviously, if you are worried about being infected, avoid crowded indoor spaces. You can wear a mask. These things always work. My sense is that most Americans want to – and aren’t necessarily interested in – engaging in these areas. I think it’s largely acceptable as long as you’re not in a high-risk group or, if you are, as long as you’re keeping up with your vaccinations.

CHANG: So let me ask you – because, Dr. Jha, you’ve been on our show so many times. We have now…

JHA: Yes.

CHANG: …What? – 4 and a half years to observe this virus as it has…

JHA: Yes.

CHANG: …the spread, because it kept changing. I wonder. At this point, what are the key patterns you have observed during this period?

JHA: So a few things. I mean, firstly, we usually see about two waves a year – one in summer, one in winter – winter waves tend to be worse – all caused by the continuing evolution of the virus. We’re seeing that people who are landing in the hospital – there are still a lot of people who are getting very sick from this virus. These are very fragile people, older people, immunocompromised people. So this is the population I spend my time worrying about. How can we ensure their safety?

The other thing to think about is that there is always a chance that this virus could evolve in a very significant way, so that it could actually cause more disruption and more disease. We need to continue to monitor and pay attention to this. I don’t expect that to happen, but if it does, we have to be ready.

CHANG: Long term, though, do you think we’ll treat COVID the same way we treat other seasonal respiratory illnesses? For example, there will be a new vaccine formulation each fall to deal with expected seasonal surges, and that is exactly what we will have to live with for the rest of time.

JHA: Look. The way I thought about it is, you know, every year I’m going to get a flu shot. We have a new wording. I’ll probably keep doing this for COVID. So I’m going to get vaccinated against the flu and COVID. And at some point, as I get older, I’ll probably need an RSV vaccine every year too. It is not practical. This can be a bit annoying. But at the end of the day, these are life-saving things, and people should do them. It’s once a year for most people. I think that’s how we’re going to manage COVID in the long term.

Again, obviously there is an outside risk that something untoward will happen, but assuming that’s not the case, this will be one of the many respiratory pathogens that we manage simply through vaccines and treatments. And if we do a good job at this, we can keep people healthy, out of the hospital and able to live their lives.

CHANG: That’s Dr. Ashish Jha from Brown University. Thank you very much, as always.

JHA: Thank you for inviting me here.

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