After being initially identified in the country, two months have gone by without a substantial increase in cases throughout June and July. This indicates that this particular sub-variant hasn’t managed to create a noteworthy influence in India. Nonetheless, it’s crucial for us to stay watchful, according to Dr. Rajesh Karyakarte, who is the Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology at B J Government Medical College in Pune.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has put the latest COVID-19 variant, EG.5.1, also known as ERIS, under its watch as cases increase in the US and UK. In India, there has been only one reported case of the EG.5.1 variant so far, which was identified in Pune in May 2023. However, experts suggest that while the WHO has designated EG.5.1 as a variant under monitoring since July 19 this year, there is currently no need for alarm. They advocate for research into developing specific booster vaccines for variants and broad-spectrum coronavirus vaccines, preferably in nasal form, to be expanded.
But what exactly is ERIS?
The EG.5.1 variant of SARS-CoV-2 (also known as XBB.188.8.131.52.1) 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. It has been detected in 39 countries and 38 US states, as confirmed by Dr. Rajesh Karyakarte, Professor and Head of the Department of Microbiology at B J Government Medical College in Pune. “ERIS” is an informal term used for simplicity. Dr. Sanjay Pujari, Director of the Institute of Infectious Diseases in Pune, explains that the EG.5.1 variant is a descendant of the XBB variant and appears to have a growth advantage, contributing to its increased prevalence worldwide.
Where was the first case reported globally and in India?
The EG.5.1 variant was first identified on a global scale as early as March 24, 2023. In India, the initial and only case of EG.5.1 was reported on May 29, 2023, in Maharashtra. Dr. Karyakarte and his team, who are responsible for genome sequencing, successfully identified this Covid variant among positive RT-PCR samples at their lab in B J Government Medical College. It was promptly reported to relevant authorities at both the state and central levels.
How contagious is it? What are its symptoms and severity?
As reported by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), the variant is spreading rapidly with a weekly growth advantage of 20.51%, comprising about 14.5% of all COVID-19 cases in the UK as of July 20, 2023. In terms of symptoms and severity, UKHSA and the WHO are closely monitoring Omicron EG.5.1 to assess its impact on public health and vaccine effectiveness. Dr. Karyakarte states that there is currently no evidence indicating that Omicron EG.5.1 leads to more severe illness, increased hospitalization risk, or higher mortality compared to other variants. However, an elevated case count could potentially result in more long-term COVID-19 cases.
The predominant symptoms include a sore throat, runny or congested nose, sneezing, dry cough, headache, and body aches. Most patients do not report an immediate fever or breathing difficulties.
Are efforts being made to enhance genome sequencing?
Scientists at the National Institute of Virology are actively enhancing genome sequencing. Dr. Karyakarte confirms that they are sequencing all RT-PCR positive samples, regardless of their CT value, and are continuously monitoring for new mutations and variants. They have established protocols and are ready to expand sequencing activities if the need arises.
Should we be concerned?
In India, there has been only one reported case of the EG.5.1 variant, identified in Pune in May 2023. Since its initial discovery in the country, two months have passed without a significant surge in cases during June and July, suggesting that this sub-variant has not made a noticeable impact in India. Dr. Karyakarte emphasizes the importance of remaining vigilant and cautious, urging everyone not to lower their guard. Dr. Pratapsinh Sarnikar, Joint Director of Health in Maharashtra, indicates that the current dominant variant of Covid is XBB.1.16, with 103 active cases as of August 8.
What about risks and prevention?
High-risk groups, including the elderly, individuals with underlying health conditions, and pregnant women, should continue to exercise caution. With declining immunity from vaccination, it is advisable to revert to practices such as hand hygiene, social distancing, avoiding crowded places, wearing masks, and staying home if experiencing respiratory symptoms.
According to infectious diseases expert Dr. Amit Dravid, given the presence of various illnesses like H3N2, H1N1, dengue, and typhoid, individuals with cold, cough, and fever should seek medical attention and undergo testing to identify the specific cause.