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Scientists say COVID-19 “FLiRT” variants could lead to better vaccines

Centers for Disease Control

Two new COVID-19 strains have emerged that scientists are calling FLiRT variants.

Previous variants have had their own unique mutations, but the two FLiRT variants share the same set of mutations which researchers say is something new for the virus.

“They're more similar than they are different, where mutations in the past have been more different than they are similar” said Dr. Angela Branche, an infectious disease specialist with UR Medicine. She added that the likeness is “probably a good thing.”

“It might mean that the virus is settling into sort of how it's going to exist over time,” Branche said.

Researchers believe that the similarities indicate that the virus has found a mutation that “it likes” and deems effective in evading antibodies. Branche said if this mutation became a developing pattern, it would help scientists develop better protective measures.

“It helps to pick a strain for your updated vaccines that will work in any of these circumstances,” Branche said. She anticipates an updated vaccine rollout to occur by the end of summer.

An article on the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health web page said that now is the time of year when governing bodies like the World Health Organization and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommend the formulation for the updated COVID vaccines that will be released in the fall. The FDA has held off on making its decisions to see which of the FliRT variants becomes dominant.

One of the FliRT variants is currently the most dominant strain in the United States, according to the CDC, accounting for almost 30% of new cases from April 28 - May 11.

Branche said symptoms are still very mild. However, unlike the Flu and RSVA, Branche said the public should still anticipate covid-19 circulating all year long.

Racquel Stephen is WXXI's health, equity and community reporter and producer. She holds a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Rochester and a master's degree in broadcasting and digital journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.