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Explainer: What are COVID FLiRT variants? |

Health And Family

Explainer: What are COVID FLiRT variants?

Kristofer Purnell -
Explainer: What are COVID FLiRT variants?
A man walks past a COVID-19-themed mural in Barangay Bagong Ilog, Pasig City on April 18, 2023.
The STAR / Michael Varcas

MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines is seeing a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases, though the disease remains at low risk for transmission.

The Department of Health (DOH) reported 877 new infections were reported from May 7 to 13 — an average of 125 cases logged per day — and five deaths from April 30 to May 13.

Further data showed that hospital occupancy for COVID-19 patients remained low. Only 116 severe and critical cases were admitted to various hospitals across the country.

With that, the DOH advised travel restrictions, mandatory masking, and additional vaccination are not yet warranted but the agency is still closely monitoring new variants alongside global trends.

Singapore in particular is facing a new wave with infections rising over the past two weeks.

The World Health Organization said it is monitoring three descendants of variant of interest JN.1: JN.1.18, KP.2, and KP.3.

The latter two variants are nicknamed "FLiRT" due to specific changes in the virus' spike protein.

Related: DOH: Philippines keeps low COVID-19 risk despite rise in cases

FLiRT variants

Dr. Andrew Pekosz, a Molecular Microbiology and Immunology professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, explained further details about FLiRT variants in this Q&A from the Bloomberg School.

Such variants are a whole family of different variants — including KP.2, JN.1.7, and any other variants starting with KP or JN — that appear to have independently picked up the same set of mutations, descending from the JN.1 variant.

The mutation changes in the virus' spike protein are positions 456, 346, and 572.

"Viruses like COVID mutate frequently, and when they mutate to evade recognition by antibodies, this often weakens their ability to bind to the cells they want to infect," said Pekosz. "We then see mutations appear that improve that binding ability. This is a cycle we have seen many times with SARS-CoV 2."

Pekosz further explained that mutations 456 and 346 eliminate binding sites for antibodies that neutralize COVID, the same antibody binding sites needed for the virus to bind to and enter cells, "So in evading antibodies, these FLiRT variants may have also lost some ability to bind to their receptor."

Meanwhile, the 572 mutation appears to allow the virus to more tightly bind to cells and ultimately cause an infection.

Symptoms, prevention

Pekosz said there aren't really any new or different symptoms when it comes to FLiRT variants, pointing to humans' present stronger immunity.

"After years of vaccinations and infections, most of the population is better able to fight off an infection without as much concern for severe disease," he explained.

Like the JN.1 and previous omicron variants, the infectiousness period is the same: symptoms may develop five or more days after exposure and one is contagious a day or two before experiencing symptoms as well as a few days after they subside.

A detectable live virus could stay with individuals for up to a week after their symptoms begin, while others may experience rebound symptoms.

The DOH advised Filipino to observe good respiratory hygiene (cover coughs), wash hands, choose less crowded areas, and ensure good airflow and ventilation.

"It is also best for those who feel ill to stay at home for the meantime, or to properly wear a mask should there be a need to go out," the agency added. — with reports from Gaea Cabico, infographic by Enrico Alonzo

RELATED: No mandatory masking amid new COVID-19 variant – DOH

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