New COVID-19 ‘FLiRT’ Variants Identified—What You Need to Know

New COVID-19 ‘FLiRT’ Variants Identified—What You Need to Know

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, continues to mutate, with the latest crop of variants emerging just in time for summer. 

The newly identified group, dubbed “FLiRT,” includes a variant called KP.2, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists as the dominant strain in the United States, accounting for 25% of new sequenced cases in the final two weeks of April. Another strain, KP.1.1, is less widespread, playing a role in 7.5% of cases during that time frame. 

While COVID case rates in the U.S. are still relatively low overall, you might be wondering how concerned you should be about the debut of these new variants.

Here’s what you need to know about the FLiRT strains, including whether you can expect a COVID wave this summer.

Daniel de la Hoz / Getty Images

The FLiRT group of variants is named after the technical names of its mutations, F456L and R346T. They are part of SARS-CoV-2’s Omicron lineage, which was first detected in 2021.

The new variants descend from JN.1, the primary variant circulating in the U.S. this past winter. That strain is now the second most dominant, accounting for 22% of cases.

In April, the FLiRT strains quickly gained dominance. During the last week of March, only about 4% of COVID cases were caused by KP.2, compared to about a quarter just a few weeks later. 

Syra Madad, DHSc, MSc, senior director of the System-wide Special Pathogens Program at NYC Health + Hospitals and a fellow of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told Health that current data hasn’t shown “that the FLiRT variants are associated with increased severity of illness.”

However, she added, public health agencies are still learning about the new variants, so it’s too soon to know for sure whether they will cause more serious illness. “As public health continues to gather and analyze data on these variants, recommendations and public health guidelines may be updated to reflect new insights,” she said.

According to the CDC, the most common COVID symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Cough
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of taste or smell
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Sore throat
  • Congestion
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath

The COVID vaccine should protect against the new strains. Still, preliminary evidence suggests that it may not offer as much protection against the FLiRT variants as it did against JN.1 this past winter. That’s because, compared to JN.1, the new variants are more distantly related to XBB 1.5, the strain targeted by the most recent COVID booster.

The good news is that the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended that future COVID vaccine formulations be based on JN.1, which is more closely related to the FLiRT variants. 

So far, the new variants don’t appear to be causing an increase in COVID cases in the U.S. 

According to the CDC, the amount of SARS-CoV-2 virus detected in U.S. wastewater remains “minimal,” and cases didn’t increase in April. Furthermore, the number of COVID-related hospitalizations and deaths has dropped since January 2024, when JN.1 arrived on the scene.

It’s unlikely that the FLiRT variants will lead to a significant uptick in case rates, Mark Cameron, PhD, an associate professor in the Department of Population and Quantitative Health Sciences at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, told Health. But he said it’s possible.

“This virus has surprised us more times than I can count,” he said. “If the past is prologue, the FLiRT lineage has plenty of time to cook up something new before the next cold and flu season starts in earnest this fall, and that could make waves.”

The CDC recommends staying current on the COVID vaccines and boosters. Speak to a doctor if you’re unsure about if and when you need a booster.

Other preventative measures include practicing good hygiene, such as frequently washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds and taking steps to improve air quality in your home, like opening doors and using exhaust fans. 

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