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

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As much as we would all love 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, as of last Friday, the CDC says that the amount of respiratory illness in the U.S. is low. The not-so-great news is that the U.S. has often flirted with summer COVID waves because of travel and air-conditioned gatherings. So we're going to bring in now doctor Ashish Jha. He's the dean of the Brown University School of Public Health and former White House COVID-19 response coordinator. Welcome back to the show.

ASHISH JHA: Thanks for having me back.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK, so how concerned, would you say, are scientists about whether these FLiRT variants come with increased transmissibility or increased disease severity compared to previous variants?

JHA: Yeah. So we're seeing exactly what we have expected, which is ongoing evolution of the virus. The virus continues to evolve to try to escape the wall of immunity we have built up through vaccines and infections. And so this is just the latest version of that. The key questions are the ones you asked. Is this more transmissible? It is. That's why it has become more dominant.

But the really important question is, is it going to get people to become more sick than previous versions? And all the evidence right now we have is no - that if you have been vaccinated or if you had previous infections or, like, you're one of the majority of Americans who've had both - everything we know about this latest variant is that you are likely to have a mild infection, not get particularly sick. Obviously, we have to continue monitoring every new variant, but this is pretty expected.

CHANG: OK. That sounds pretty reassuring, but do you expect 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 get...

JHA: Yeah.

CHANG: ...A mild infection?

JHA: Yeah. So a couple of thoughts - first is every summer since the beginning of this pandemic, we have seen a summer wave. And therefore, my expectation is we probably will get a summer wave. Some of them are small waves. Some of them have been bigger. The reasons are ones you've actually listed. You know, we spend a lot more time indoors in the summer, especially in the South, where it gets very hot.

And, you know, when I think about who's at risk of having complications from these infections, it's older Americans. It's immunocompromised Americans. For them, the two big things are, first, making sure they're up to date on their vaccines 'cause that's going to prevent them from landing in the hospital. Second is if they do get an infection, we have widely available treatments. That's really important. My elderly parents recently got COVID. I made sure they got treated. They did fine. Obviously, if you're worried about getting infected at all, avoiding crowded indoor spaces. You can wear a mask. Those things still work. My sense is most Americans want to - aren't necessarily interested in engaging on those things. I think that's largely OK as long as you're not that high-risk group or, if you are, as long as you're keeping up with your vaccines.

CHANG: So let me ask you - because, Dr. Jha, you have been on our show so many times. We've now had...

JHA: Yep.

CHANG: ...What? - 4 1/2 years to observe this virus as it has...

JHA: Yep.

CHANG: ...Spread, as it has kept changing. I'm wondering. At this point, like, what are some key patterns that you have seen over that time?

JHA: So a couple things. I mean, first is we are seeing pretty typically about two waves a year - one in the summer, one in the winter - the winter waves tend to be worse - all caused by ongoing evolution of the virus. We're seeing that people who are landing in the hospital - there's still a lot of people getting very sick from this virus. They are people who are very frail, people who are older, people who are immunocompromised. So that's the population I spend my time worrying about. How do we keep them safe?

The other thing that's worth thinking about is there's always a chance that this virus could evolve in some very substantial way so that it could really cause more disruption and more illness. We've got to continue monitoring and paying attention to that. I don't expect that to happen, but if it does, we've got to be ready.

CHANG: In the long run, though, do you think we'll be treating COVID much like we treat other seasonal respiratory illnesses? Like, there will be a new vaccine formulation every fall for expected seasonal surges, and this is just what we are going to have to live with for the rest of time.

JHA: Look. The way I have thought about this is, you know, every year, I go and get my flu shot. We have a new formulation. I will probably continue doing that for COVID. So I'm going to have flu and COVID shots. And at some point, as I get older, I will probably need an RSV shot every year as well. It's inconvenient. It can be a little bit annoying. But the bottom line is these are life-saving things, and people should be doing them. It's once a year for most people. I think that's how we're going to manage COVID for the long run.

Again, obviously, there's an outside chance of something untoward happens, but assuming that that doesn't, this is going to become part of the many respiratory pathogens we just manage through vaccines and treatments. And if we do a good job of that, we can keep people healthy, out of the hospital and living their lives.

CHANG: That is Dr. Ashish Jha of Brown University. Thank you so much, as always.

JHA: Thank you for having me here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.