'Flurona': Simultaneous infections, not new coronavirus variant

·4 min read

Social media posts claim "flurona" is a new variant of the virus that causes Covid-19. This is false; experts say the term refers to simultaneous but separate influenza and coronavirus infections rather than a new variant, and that such cases are rare but have been detected before.

"There is a new variant called Flurona detected in Los Angeles please wear a mask and get vaccinated," says a January 5, 2022 tweet.

A screenshot of a tweet taken on January 6, 2022

The claim -- part of a flood of inaccurate information circulating on the internet about Covid-19 -- also appeared on Facebook here and here, and on Twitter here and here. Online articles meanwhile describe "flurona" as a new phenomenon that is being detected for the first time.

News reports of cases of patients infected simultaneously with Covid-19 and influenza -- such as this one about an unvaccinated pregnant woman -- have been widely shared in early 2022, during a surge in infections caused by the Omicron variant that has set records for new cases in multiple countries.

A case of a patient testing positive for both influenza and Covid-19 this January has also been reported in a Los Angeles county.

But the claims describing "flurona" as new phenomenon or a coronavirus variant are inaccurate.

"These are two separate viruses that use different receptors," the World Health Organization (WHO) Covid-19 incident manager, Abdi Mahamud, told journalists during a news conference on January 4. "They use a different mechanism and there's not much cross-fertilization between. They are completely different species of viruses."

Contacted by AFP, the WHO said by email on January 4: "Individuals are often infected with multiple pathogens that co-circulate in the community; and as more people are getting tested, multiple pathogens may be detected."

"This does not, however, necessarily lead to the emergence of a new disease entity ('flurona,' as reported) when influenza and SARS-CoV-2 co-infect the same individual," it said, adding that more evidence is still needed to better understand the interactions between the two viruses and whether the severity of the illness is higher when there is a co-infection.

Meena Bewtra, a University of Pennsylvania professor of medicine and epidemiologist, likewise dismissed the new variant claim.

"I can absolutely confirm that this is NOT a new Covid hybrid or variant," but rather cases "when someone has both the flu and Covid-19 -- so two separate viral infections -- at the same time," she told AFP on January 5.

"This has not been as common given that the measure we take to avoid Covid (wearing a mask, social distancing) are also effective at decreasing the risk of getting the flu," Bewtra added.

Scientists have been consistently concerned about a double pandemic of flu and Covid-19 cases -- and the impact it could have on hospital capacity. Although they are rare, co-infections have been reported in the media in the United States during 2020, including in California and Texas.

A research letter published in The Journal of the American Medical Association in April 2020 explored the possibility of co-infections on a population sample, looking for signs of SARS-CoV-2 as well as other respiratory pathogens in patients.

"These results suggest higher rates of co-infection between SARS-CoV-2 and other respiratory pathogens than previously reported... The presence of a non–SARS-CoV-2 pathogen may not provide reassurance that a patient does not also have SARS-CoV-2," the authors concluded at the time.

A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) page, last updated in November 2021, also states that "people can be infected with both flu and the virus that causes Covid-19 at the same time and have symptoms of both influenza and Covid-19," again further confirming cases of both flu and Covid-19 in a same patient at once are not something new.

Taison Bell, critical care and infectious disease physician and professor at the University of Virginia, said on January 4, 2022 that he expects simultaneous Covid-19 and flu infections to become more common.

"We can expect to see this more because we are having a more active flu season this year. This is because of less mask wearing and we're not in a state of lockdown in most places," Bell told AFP.

"Get vaccinated for Covid (of course) but also for the flu since this can also cause people to get quite sick in and of itself," he added.

Inaccurate claims about "flurona" have also circulated in French, and were debunked by AFP Factuel here.

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