Please don’t FLiRT with me!

May 16, 2024

For the past several months, JN.1 has been the dominant COVID strain in a seemingly endless string of variants, reports New York Magazine. Now, a new variant is poised to take over for the summer, and it apparently wants to … flirt with us? (Please don’t!)

On Friday, May 10, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data about KP.2, an Omicron offshoot that is currently spreading throughout the country. It’s also one of several variants scientists are calling the “FLiRT variants,” after the technical names for their amino-acid mutations: amino phenylalanine (F) replaces leucine (L), and arginine (R) is replaced by threonine (T).

According to the CDC, KP.2 currently accounts for 28% of all COVID infections since early May, with experts anticipating a potential  small summer uptick of the virus.

Compared to JN.1, which started circulating in the winter, KP.2 has three additional mutations in its spike proteins—which could make it easier for the variant to swerve by existing immune protections, although preliminary research suggests that it’s generally less efficient at infecting cells in the first place. KP.2 symptoms are similar to those of previous variants and can include fever, chills, cough, nausea, and muscle or body aches.

As with other COVID strains, high-risk patients—elderly people, the immunocompromised, and people with underlying conditions—can experience more severe symptoms.

While the variant is expected to continue evolving, medical experts aren’t sweating it. The CDC says it doesn’t see evidence that FLiRT causes more severe illness than previous variants, and lab tests have shown that KP.2 isn’t causing a surge in infections or transmission.

Medical experts say existing vaccines should hold up against FLiRT, although a new formulation expected to become available in the fall may offer stronger protection.

Research contact: @NYMag