'Flurona' threatening to derail pandemic recovery

More cases of people infected with both COVID-19 and influenza are emerging around the globe and scientists are concerned this combined superbug will undo our vaccination efforts.

The latest World Health Organization (WHO) COVID-19 variant of concern – the Omicron variant – has firmly established itself as the dominant strain of the virus globally.

So far, it has proven to be less deadly than previous variants, but experts are warning of the emergence of a new type of virus. A combined COVID-influenza monster being referred to as ‘flurona’.

Israeli health authorities have recorded a case of an unvaccinated pregnant woman who has contracted both COVID-19 and the flu at the same time. Although claimed by media outlets as the world’s first flurona case, there have been multiple reports of COVID and influenza co-infections from around the world over the past two years.

“The disease is the same disease. They’re viral and cause difficulty breathing since both attack the upper respiratory tract,” says Dr Arnon Vizhnitser, the director of gynaecology at the hospital treating the woman.

Former deputy chief medical officer of Australia, Dr Nick Coatsworth, says co-infection with multiple viruses is common even in non-pandemic times but it doesn’t always mean more severe symptoms.

“We don’t always know whether that makes things more severe or not, but the message there, for pregnant women in particular, you’re certainly at increased risk of going to hospital, going to intensive care and having an adverse outcome for your unborn child if you’re not vaccinated,” Dr Coatsworth told Today.

“So, the critically important message from ‘flurona’ is that we’ve got a vaccine for both COVID-19 and influenza and we should be taking them.”

The WHO has identified that COVID-19 and influenza, while causing similar symptoms, are actually still two separate viruses quite different in the way they infect hosts. This means they are unlikely to combine into a single ‘supervirus’.

“It is possible to be infected by both influenza and COVID-19,” says Dr Abdi Mahamud, COVID-19 incident manager.

“However, they are two were separate viruses that use different receptors in order to attack the body; therefore, there is little risk of them combining into a new virus.”

There has also been a new COVID variant identified, currently dubbed the ‘IHU variant’ as it was first identified at the Mediterranee Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) facility in Marseille, France.

The WHO says it is aware of this new variant, but at the moment does not consider it to be a variant of concern. These classifications are how easily the variant spreads, the severity of symptoms, how the variant responds to treatments, and how well vaccines defend the host.

It has also been noted that this variant has not yet been detected outside France.

However, the IHU strain is notable for having even more genetic mutations (46) than Omicron. The sheer number of mutations makes it more resistant to existing vaccines.

Even so, the WHO doesn’t consider it a threat as it emerged at around the same time as Omicron but has not been as infectious in the same period.

Virologist Dr Tom Peacock said that the IHU variant was “not one worth worrying about too much” at the moment.

“This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised,” he says.

Are you worried about contracting COVID and the flu at the same time? Are you concerned at all about the IHU variant? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Written by Brad Lockyer

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