Expert says 'you will catch Covid again' thanks to new variant

New Covid variants have rapidly become the dominant strains in the UK, amid fears they could spread more easily that older strains and could evade immunity from vaccines and previous infections. The strains, named FLiRT variants are now spreading quickly across the globe and have come at a time of increased infections and hospitalisations in the UK.

Lara Herrero, Research Leader in Virology and Infectious Disease at Griffith University, said the FLiRT variants are already 'driving large waves of infections'.

Lara told The Conversation: "Sequencing of these subvariants revealed a number of new mutations in the virus’ spike protein, including F456L, V1104L and R346T. The name FLiRT was coined by combining the letters in these mutations."

She added: "The regions of the spike protein where the mutations have been found are important for two main reasons. The first is antibody binding, which influences the degree to which the immune system can recognise and neutralise the virus. The second is virus binding to host cells, which is required to cause infection.

"These factors explain why some experts have suggested the FLiRT subvariants may be more transmissible than earlier COVID variants.

"There are also very early suggestions the FLiRT subvariants could evade immunity from prior infections and vaccination better than the parental JN.1 variant. However, this research is yet to be peer-reviewed (independently verified by other researchers).

"In more positive news, there’s no evidence the FLiRT variants cause more severe disease than earlier variants. Still, that doesn’t mean catching a COVID infection driven by FLiRT is risk-free."

In the US, FLiRT has overtaken the original JN.1 variant as the dominant strain. The latest data from the US suggests the original JN.1 is making up less than 16% of cases. In other parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, the FLiRT subvariants are similarly on the rise.

Lara said: "COVID vaccines continue to provide strong protection against severe disease. So if you’re eligible, consider getting a booster to protect yourself this winter.

"SARS-CoV-2 is now an endemic virus meaning it will continue to circulate around the world. To do this, the virus mutates – usually only slightly – to survive.

"The new FLiRT subvariants are excellent examples of this, where the virus mutates enough to continue to circulate and cause disease. So far there is no suggestion these subvariants are causing more severe illness. It’s more likely they will cause people to catch COVID yet again.

"While the information we have at this stage doesn’t give us significant cause for concern about the FLiRT variants specifically, we are nonetheless facing rising COVID infections once more. And we know people who are older or vulnerable, for example due to medical conditions that compromise their immune system, continue to be at greater risk."