A new sub-variant of the coronavirus, called Eris – the name of the Greek goddess of discord – seems to want to wreak havoc in Quebec a few weeks before the start of the school year. Should we be worried about this new intruder? Portrait of a sub-variant on the rise, but which poses only a low health risk so far.
What is the EG.5 subvariant?
From the Omicron variant, the EG.5 sub-variant first appeared on the radar of the World Health Organization (WHO) on February 17. Five months later, it declared it “under surveillance”, to finally classify it this week as a “variant of interest” because of its high prevalence and its ability to thwart immune defences.
So far, however, there is no evidence that this subvariant, dubbed Eris, causes more severe symptoms than other subvariants from Omicron. “Available information does not indicate that EG.5 poses a greater public health risk than other SARS-CoV-2 subvariants currently circulating,” the WHO said in a statement on Wednesday.
Where is Eris spreading fastest?
So far, 51 countries have reported a total of 7,354 cases of COVID-19 associated with the Eris subvariant. As of August 7, China alone had nearly a third of the Eris-associated cases worldwide, or 2,273. The United States followed with 1,356 cases, South Korea with 1,040 cases, Japan with 814 cases and Canada with 392 cases, or 5.3% of the Eris sequences compiled by the WHO.
Although the severity of infections caused by Eris appears to be no worse than other Omicron subvariants, the WHO is keeping an eye on EG.5 due to its rapid spread across the planet. Only between the end of June and the end of July, the proportion of COVID-19 cases due to the newcomer rose from 7.6% to 17.4% worldwide.
In Quebec, this sub-variant made its appearance at the end of May, before experiencing a significant increase in July. According to the National Institute of Public Health (INSPQ), Eris is now responsible for around 20% of the cases listed in the province. In the last week of July, the coronavirus had infected just over 100 people, according to INSPQ data.
Eris is under “enhanced surveillance” because “it could well replace most of the sub-variants circulating in the coming weeks”, specifies Richard Daigle, of the INSPQ, who adds that “there is no signal , for the moment, of an increased virulence of this virus”.
Should we be worried about it?
The figures quoted above seem minimal compared to the 770 million cases of COVID-19 listed so far in the world. The arrival of Eris in Canada should therefore not alarm us, underlines virologist Benoît Barbeau.
“It’s a subvariant that demonstrates a significant ability to spread and is on its way to becoming dominant in the United States and the United Kingdom,” he explains. On the other hand, we shouldn’t necessarily worry more about this sub-variant than the others that continue to circulate. »
The WHO finds that the appearance of Eris in countries such as Korea and Japan is consistent with an increase in hospitalizations, but refuses to establish a link between the two. “No association has yet been made between these hospitalizations and EG.5,” the organization wrote earlier this week.
Why is the Eris sub-variant making headlines?
The rapid spread of the EG.5 subvariant is on its way to making it dominant in some countries, notably the United States, and is driving up the number of contaminations.
“When you have an outbreak of cases, it’s never really good news, underlines again the virologist Benoît Barbeau. Although Omicron still has the advantage of being a virus associated with milder symptoms than its predecessor, Delta, the more people infected, the higher the number of hospitalizations. »
Does immunity still work?
If Eris manages to better thwart our immune defenses, “we are not going back to square one,” says the virologist. “Our system produced antibodies during the pandemic and our body retained the memory of them, explains the expert. We have kind of already educated our immune system to deal with the virus. »
However, recalls Benoît Barbeau, the most vulnerable people, even vaccinated, are not necessarily free of complications. “Our doses are facing a new player who has been able to adapt to what people have as a defense, he explains. Since our vaccines are less well positioned against this new sub-variant, people are at risk of experiencing serious complications, particularly people who are already vulnerable. »
The National Advisory Committee on Immunization (NACI), a federal agency, last month recommended that all Canadians get a booster dose of the COVID-19 vaccine tailored to new circulating variants.