The World Health Organisation (WHO) has listed the latest COVID-19 variant, EG.5.1, simply known as ERIS, on its radar as cases started picking up in the US and UK.
In India, as of now, there has been only one reported case of the EG.5.1 variant, identified in Pune in May 2023. However, experts say while the WHO has categorised EG.5.1 as a variant under monitoring on July 19 this year, at this point of time there is no need to panic.
They have made a strong case for research into developing variant-specific vaccine boosters and pan-Coronavirus vaccines, preferably nasal ones, that need to be scaled up.
The SARS-CoV-2 variant EG.5.1 (alias XBB.18.104.22.168.1), is a sub-lineage of the Omicron variant XBB.1.9.2. It has two additional spike mutations (Q52H, F456L) compared to its parent strain lineage. It has been detected in 39 countries and 38 US states, said Dr Rajesh Karyakarte, Professor and Head, Department of Microbiology, B J Government Medical College, Pune. “ERIS is not an official term but used for simplicity.
The variant EG.5.1. is a descendent of the XBB variant and seems to have some growth advantage contributing to increase in proportion of SARS-COV-2 infections in most regions of the world,” said Dr Sanjay Pujari , Director, Institute of Infectious Diseases, Pune.
Globally, the EG.5.1 variant was found as early as March 24, 2023. In India, the first and the only case of EG.5.1 was reported on May 29, 2023 from Maharashtra. Dr Karyakarte, who is the state coordinator for genome sequencing, and his team were able to pick up this Covid variant from among Covid-postive RT-PCR- samples that are genome-sequenced at their lab in B J Government Medical College.
It was identified and duly reported to all concerned authorities in Maharashtra and the Centre.
As per the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the variant is spreading very rapidly with a weekly growth advantage of 20.51 per cent, and it accounts for about 14.5 per cent of all COVID-19 cases in the UK as of July 20, 2023.
Regarding its symptoms and severity, UKHSA and the WHO are closely monitoring Omicron EG.5.1 to assess its impact on public health and vaccine effectiveness. “So far, there does not seem to be any evidence that the Omicron EG.5.1 causes more severe disease or increases the risk of hospitalisation or death compared to other variants,” Dr Karyakarte said, adding that teams were monitoring any increase in hospital admissions.
“It seems to be more transmissible but at this stage, this variant doesn’t seem to cause higher rates of severe illness among vaccinated individuals. However, a higher number of cases could lead to a longer list of long-COVID cases,” Dr Pujari pointed out.
The main symptoms are sore throat, runny or blocked nose, sneezing, dry cough, headache and body pain, but most patients do not report immediate fever or breathlessness.
Should we be worried?
In India, as of now, there has been only one reported case of the EG.5.1 variant, identified in Pune in May 2023. Since its first detection in the country, two months have passed without a significant surge in cases during June and July, suggesting that this sub-variant has not been able to make a noticeable impact in India.
“However, it is important that we remain vigilant and continue to exercise caution, not letting our guard down,” Dr Karyakarte added. According to Maharashtra joint director of health, Dr Pratapsinh Sarnikar, at present the dominant variant of Covid is XBB.1.16. Till August 8, there were 103 active cases of Covid in Maharashtra.