THE novel coronavirus and its variants and mutations has been with us for close to three years. 

Although the pandemic has, by-and-large,  been controlled, the virus has, nonetheless, taken its toll on collective populations.  While its socio-economic, health and clinical impacts are still being felt throughout the world, a new variant has reared its ugly head. 

In mid-July 2023, WHO announced the emergence of a new COVID-19 variant, classified as EG.5.  

By mid-August 2023, WHO declared the new variant — code named Eris — as ‘a variant of interest’.  

But so far, according to WHO, the public health risk posed by EG.5 ‘was low at a global level’.  

While the new strain has not raised alarms as yet, it is likely to cause ‘a spike in infections’. 

Since the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 virus, the virus that caused COVID-19 pandemic, spread globally, several variants have emerged and been identified in many countries around the world.  

EG.5 or ‘Eris’ has been described as other variants like XBB1.16, whose chances of becoming severe were very low.  I was first made aware of the new variant Eris during a news broadcast on France 24, where it was detected in that country and its effects were played down.  

According to Dr Maria Van Kerkhove, an infectious disease epidemiologist who serves as the technical lead for COVID-19 response at WHO: “The virus is evolving and circulating in every country, and EG.5 is one of the latest variants of interest that we are classifying. 

This is what we have to prepare for.  

So far, in terms of the sequencing, we need countries to continue that and sharing databases so that our technical advisory group can monitor, assess and conduct these risk evaluations and publish them regularly.”

A variant of interest (VoI), becomes a variant of concern (VoC) (which is one step worse than a variant of interest) if it is known to spread more easily, cause more severe disease, escape the body’s immune response – ‘immune escape’, change clinical presentation or decrease effectiveness of known tools – such as public health measures like masking up, safe distancing and washing hands frequently; diagnostics, treatments and vaccines.

Viruses are constantly evolving and changing.  

Whenever a virus replicates (makes copies of itself), there is the potential for a modification in its structure, such as the SARS-COV-2.  

Each of these changes is a ‘mutation’.  

A virus with one or more mutations is 

called a ‘variant’ of the original virus.  

Some mutations can lead to changes in important characteristics of the virus, including characteristics that affect its ability to spread and/or its ability to cause and perpetuate more chronic symptoms, severe illness and death

It is normal for viruses to change and evolve as they spread between people over time. 

When these changes become significantly different from the original virus, they are known as ‘variants’.  To identify variants, scientists map the genetic material of viruses (known as sequencing) and then look for differences between them to see if they have changed.

Eris, the new COVID-19 variant of SARS-COV-2 is now reportedly threatening our Southern African neighbours after the first case of this new variant was confirmed in Gauteng, South Africa.  

Here, data revealed that almost 45 percent of South Africans have not been vaccinated against the virus.  

A spokesperson at the South African Medical Association (SAMA) said the new variant is likely to cause severe symptoms for immuno-compromised people, and those who are older than 65 years of age.

The main symptoms of this rising sub-variant are similar to previous omicron symptoms. 

One such symptom is a sore throat.  

Eris can also trigger inflammation of the membranes lining the nose and sinuses, which are an immune response, and can lead to a runny nose, sneezing, coughing with or without phlegm, headache, hoarse voice, muscle aches and an altered sense of smell.

Eris is currently one of three variants on WHO’s watchlist. 

The other two are XBB.1.5, which is largely circulating in Europe and the Americas, and XBB.1. 6, which is predominant in Asia.  

Meanwhile, medical experts are still learning about several newer omicron strains circulating in the US, each of which, as of mid-December, were causing, at the least, six percent of infections. 

They include BF.7, XBB, BN.1, BF.11, and others.

A report posted at the end of June 2023 by the Neherlab research group, based at the Biozentrum, University of Basel, Switzerland, already described variant EG.5 as, “… the fastest growing lineage with significant circulation in the world.”  

Neherlab’s data suggests that EG.5 was first detected in Indonesia in February 2023, and in the US the following month.

EG.5 was also on the agenda of a virtual press conference hosted by WHO on July 27 2023. 

During the briefing, WHO’s technical lead for COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove said: “All of the variants that we are detecting that are sub-lineages of omicron have an increased growth rate.  

That raises the point that this virus continues to circulate and it continues to change.”

In its EG.5 Initial Risk Evaluation report of August 7 2023, WHO said the variant had been sequenced more than 7 350 times, with samples from 51 countries.  

Most of the variant sequences were from China, with 30,6 percent, or 2 247 sequences.  

Other countries listed with at least 100 sequences included the US, South Korea, Japan, Canada, Australia, Singapore, the UK, France, Portugal and Spain.

According to WHO: “A potential for EG.5 to cause a rise in case incidence and become dominant in some countries or even globally due to its growth advantage and immune escape characteristics is the same as it was with other variants in the omicron lineage of the virus.”

What does it mean for Zimbabwe?  

What are the public health implications of this new variant for the country? 

Is Zimbabwe safe and are we prepared for another coronavirus onslaught? 

While epidemiologists and medical experts are still learning about the ways that variants impact vaccination, medical data currently available shows us that COVID-19 vaccines are still very effective at preventing serious illness and death against all of the current variants of concern. 

In 2022, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), authorised Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna bivalent booster shots for everyone six months of age and older. These boosters are designed to protect against disease caused by the original strain of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, as well as the omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5 (although experts are still learning about their effectiveness against the latest omicron sub-variants).

For the general public, it is important to note that the vaccines provide different levels of protection from infection, mild disease, severe disease, hospitalisation and death.  

Moderna and other COVID-19 vaccine makers Novavax, Pfizer and German partner BioNTech SE have created new versions of their vaccines updated to target another omicron sub-lineage – XBB.1.5 – to more closely resemble the various circulating strains of the virus.

Even though COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective at protecting against serious illness and death, no vaccine is as yet 100 percent effective. 

Therefore, to protect yourself and others from COVID-19 variants, keep a distance of at least one metre from others; wear a well-fitted mask over your mouth and nose; always cough or sneeze into a bent elbow or tissue; clean your hands frequently; open windows and more importantly, get vaccinated.  

We must not lower our guard against COVID-19.

Dr Tony M. Monda BSc, DVM, DPVM, is currently conducting medical veterinary epidemiology and agro-economic research in Zimbabwe. 

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