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New COVID-19 Subvariant EG.5: Everything You Need To Know

A recent emergence of the EG.5 subvariant has sparked global attention. 

With Singapore noting its presence, let’s delve into the characteristics of the EG.5 subvariant, potential implications, and the preparedness of countries in its wake.

Within the heart of Southeast Asia, Singapore’s Ministry of Health highlighted that about 18% of their recent COVID-19 community cases were due to the EG.5 Omicron subvariant. This revelation came to light on Tuesday, 8th August.

Global Spread and Designation of New Variant

First detected abroad in February, the EG.5 variant has been reported in 51 countries. By July, the World Health Organisation (WHO) flagged EG.5, including its subgroup EG.5.1, as a variant under monitoring. 

This categorisation essentially means that this variant displays “early signals of growth advantage” over other circulating ones, although clear evidence of its impact remains under the lens. 

The WHO has designated the EG.5 strain of the coronavirus, as a “variant of interest.” However, according to them, its threat level to public health isn’t greater than that of other known variants. In its risk assessment, the WHO mentioned, “Collectively, available evidence does not suggest that EG.5 has additional public health risks relative to the other currently circulating Omicron descendent lineages.” They emphasised the need for a deeper analysis of the risks linked to EG.5.

This subvariant, originating from the subvariant XBB.1.9.2, has been on researchers’ radar for some time. The EG.5 subvariant now includes the subgroup EG.5.1. This lineage is a descendant of the Omicron family and represents a modification to the virus rather than a transformative evolutionary leap. Specifically, it possesses an additional mutation to its spike at position 465, a mutation observed in other coronavirus strains as well.

Similarly, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pinpoints EG.5 causing approximately 17% of the nation’s new infections.

Is the Variant EG.5 a Cause for Concern?

The global death toll from COVID-19 is over 6.9 million, with confirmed cases surpassing 768 million. While the pandemic status was declared by WHO in March 2020, they revoked the global emergency designation for COVID-19 in May 2023.

Maria Van Kerkhove, the lead technical expert on COVID-19 for WHO, noted that the EG.5 variant is more transmissible, but not necessarily more severe than its Omicron counterparts. “We don’t detect a change in severity of EG.5 compared to other sublineages of Omicron that have been in circulation since late 2021,” she said.

WHO’s Director General, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, expressed concern over several countries not sharing their COVID-19 statistics with the organisation. He highlighted that a mere 11% have disclosed figures regarding COVID-related hospital and ICU admissions.

Subsequently, WHO rolled out a series of continuous guidelines pertaining to COVID-19, emphasizing the importance for countries to relay data on COVID-related deaths, illness, and continue their vaccination campaigns.

Reflecting on the data shortage, Van Kerkhove expressed, “About a year ago, we were in a much better situation to either anticipate or act or be more agile,” adding that their current capability to act proactively is diminishing due to this delay.

Question: How does the EG.5 subvariant differ genetically from its predecessors, and why should we pay attention to its rapid spread?

Mutation’s Significance

Recent data suggests that about 35% of coronavirus sequences reported globally carry this mutation. It hints at an evolutionary advantage over preceding strains. 

In fact, this mutation has been so influential that EG.5 has birthed an offshoot, EG.5.1, which introduces a second mutation to the spike. Its rapid proliferation remains a focus for scientists worldwide.

While minor genetic tweaks might seem inconsequential, these modifications can influence a virus’s resistance against the body’s immune responses. Initial research reveals that variants like EG.5 and its offshoot, EG.5.1, present a slightly heightened resistance to neutralising antibodies, especially in those vaccinated or previously infected. 

However, symptoms elicited by these strains remain consistent with prior viruses, implying no augmented disease severity.

Impact on Human Health

Despite the burgeoning numbers, the variants have shown only marginal resistance against neutralising antibodies in vaccinated and infected individuals’ serum. Their clinical manifestations don’t diverge much from prior strains. 

Further, epidemiologists believe the recent surge in cases across various countries, notably the US, isn’t solely because of EG.5. Factors such as human behaviour, rising temperatures pushing people indoors, summer travels, and school resumptions play a pivotal role.

Vaccination remains our primary defence against COVID-19. The upcoming fall’s COVID-19 booster is being designed to target the XBB variant and its derivatives, promising comprehensive protection against circulating strains like EG.58. Delays in its release have raised concerns, especially with newer variants on the horizon.

Navigating the Future of the Pandemic

As we progress, understanding and adapting to new COVID-19 variants will be paramount. With EG.5 making headlines, it’s critical to stay informed, vigilant, and optimistic. 

While vaccination provides a strong line of defence, public health measures, combined with scientific insights, will shape our path forward.

References

  1. Tétrault-Farber, G., & Leo, L. (2023, August 9). WHO classifies EG.5 as COVID-19 “variant of interest.” Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/who-tracking-new-eg5-coronavirus-variant-spreading-uk-us-tedros-2023-08-09/
  2. Goodman, B. (2023, August 9). New variant EG.5 is on the rise as Covid-19 cases and hospitalizations go up | CNN. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2023/08/09/health/covid-variant-eg5/index.html
  3. 18% of recent COVID-19 community cases in Singapore infected by EG.5 Omicron subvariant. (n.d.). CNA. https://www.channelnewsasia.com/singapore/covid-19-community-cases-singapore-infected-eg5-omicron-subvariant-3685896

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