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Fueled by 'Eris,' COVID Escapes Predictability Once Again

Jun 01, 2023

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Once again, COVID-19 has not taken a summer vacation.

Wastewater measurements reveal a swell in virus levels across the Bay Area and the state.

“Eris,” or EG.5 is the dominant strain in the U.S. right now and is driving the local activity, too. The variant does not seem to be any more dangerous than previous variants, but it is more transmissible.

“The interesting thing is: COVID hasn’t really changed too much, since winter to now,” said Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at UCSF. “It’s just been variations on the theme.”

That could be changing. A subvariant that’s just beginning to surface may be the best yet at evading immunity. Scientists for the Centers for Disease and Prevention are watching BA.286 because it has even greater potential to escape the antibodies that protect people from getting sick, even if you’ve recently tested positive or been vaccinated. It is too early to know if it causes more serious illness. There are only a handful of cases in the U.S.

This is the fourth summer in a row that COVID-19 has spread rapidly in California. Health experts offer several explanations for the recent uptick. People may be seeking relief from scorching temperatures by staying inside air-conditioned spaces. For most folks life is back to normal, so large gatherings have resumed in full force. And, immunity may be declining because the last vaccine campaign was in the fall.

All of these factors, in addition to a wily virus, are likely why scientists are not seeing a predictable seasonal pattern like influenza, which typically strikes when it’s cold. It’s not clear when COVID-19 will settle into an annual surge.

“I’d hope it would be a once-a-year virus,” said Chin-Hong. “But it just seems that the summer increase in cases is something that we continue to see.”

Virus levels are still lower than earlier surges. And it’s worth noting that the wastewater data is pretty noisy.

At a sewage plant in Redwood City, levels are spiking, but declining in San Francisco’s Oceanside neighborhood and falling dramatically at similar facilities in Sunnyvale and Palo Alto.

Los Angeles is seeing a slow rise, while virus levels started to slowly fall off in Sacramento recently.

Given the current numbers, Chin-Hong does recommend taking additional precautions. He suggested people who are immunocompromised and those over the age of 65 consider masking indoors, given their higher susceptibility to severe illness.

Everyone else may want to weigh the consequences of falling ill at this time. Can you miss work? Do you have a special occasion on the books that you’d have to miss if you were isolated for five days, which public health officials still recommend people do after a positive test? Then it may be a good time to err on the safe side if you don’t want to end up at home alone. You could carry your well-fitting N95 mask in case you find yourself in a crowded indoor space.

The public will have the opportunity to fortify immunity soon. A new booster shot will likely be available in late September, designed to target the variants in wide circulation now.

Feeling like a pin cushion? There’s good news for those suffering from booster fatigue. Scientists are working on a universal vaccine, which, in theory, would allow one-stop shopping. Unlike current vaccines, which offer protection against one or several strains of a disease, universal vaccines are designed to teach the immune system to defend against all versions of a pathogen — even versions that don’t exist yet. This is possible by targeting an element of the pathogen that is the same across all strains and types.

“That is the holy grail,” said Chin-Hong. “I think we will probably get something in the next two-to-three years. They are also working on that for influenza.”

In the meantime, he says, we could see a combination vaccine that provides protection for COVID-19 and influenza as early as next year.