While scientists are sounding the alarm over an uptick in Covid cases and suggesting people wear masks in their own homes, a top health official said there is nothing to suggest the new variant ‘Eris’ is more likely to cause severe infections.
Dr Scott Gottlieb, former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said the strain — dubbed EG.5 — has mutations helping it get past immunity from vaccines and past infections.
But he added it was ‘not that… different’ from prior Omicron strains, and therefore not more likely to cause severe infections, hospitalizations or deaths.
Speaking on CNBC’s Squawk Box, Dr Gottlieb said: ‘There’s nothing to suggest that this particular strain [EG.5] circulating in the United States right now is more pathogenic than prior variants.
‘So, people who are vaccinated with prior variants and who have had the infection before, should have some residual immunity against this.’
He added: ‘But this is an Omicron subvariant that doesn’t appear to be that much different in terms of its pathogenicity than the prior Omicron variants.’
Monitoring by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests EG.5 — one of the quickest spreading variants yet — is currently behind one in five infections in the US. But Dr Gottlieb said because of a lag in data, the variant may actually be behind half of cases.
The above shows Covid variants in the United States. It highlights how EG.5, shown in orange, has grown rapidly as a proportion of infections and is now dominant
Dr Gottlieb did not mention another new Covid strain — known as BA.X — that has prompted calls for face masks and scientists to fear a surge of Covid cases this fall. Only three cases of the variant have been detected so far in two countries — Israel and Denmark — but several experts told DailyMail.com the strain was ‘probably’ already in the US.
Asked about areas of the country facing a resurgence in Covid, Dr Gottlieb said he was concerned about the South.
‘The part of the country I would be most worried about right now is the South,’ he told CNBC, ‘where we see an uptick in ER visits for Covid.
‘Around two percent of ER visits in the South right now are for Covid, so that’s the part of the country where we are seeing the biggest uptick right now.’
He urged Americans to ensure they were up to date with their Covid vaccines and to get a booster shot in the fall.
EG.5 is one of the fastest spreading variants recorded, which may be thanks to a ‘slightly beneficial mutation’ helping it to transmit faster than its relatives.
But the strain is also mild and does not pose more of a threat to the public health than other versions, according to the World Health Organization.
Last week, the agency labeled it a ‘variant of interest’ because it was spreading so rapidly.
‘Collectively, available evidence does not suggest that EG.5 has additional public health risks relative to the other currently circulating Omicron descendent lineages,’ the WHO said in a risk evaluation.
A more comprehensive evaluation of the risk posed by EG.5 was needed, it added.
The CDC has labelled it a variant ‘under monitoring’ as it has a slightly different classification system.
Hospitalizations in the US are rising and have been ticking upwards from historic lows. In the last week, about 10,000 admissions were recorded — up 14 percent from the week prior
Covid deaths are remaining static, however, although it takes longer for someone who has caught Covid to be hospitalized and then die from an infection
Latest CDC data shows hospitalizations have risen 14 percent over the previous seven-day period, to 10,300 admissions per week.
But they are rising from historic lows and remain well-below this year’s peak of 44,000 admissions recorded in January. At the height of the pandemic, admissions surged to more than 150,000 per week.
Covid deaths are still static at nearly 500 recorded every week — or less than 70 per day across the US.
Scientists say this is likely being driven by waning immunity in the population among people who were last infected in the winter and variants emerging that are better able to escape current vaccines or natural immunity.
Routine swabbing is no longer being done in the US and only a fraction of positive tests are sent for analysis to determine the strain behind a case, meaning it can take weeks to detect new strains and to calculate how prominent they are.