JN.1: What to know about the new Covid variant surging in the US

Infectious disease experts say the best way to protect yourself from the JN.1 subvariant is to get the updated Covid 19 vaccine

Katie Hawkinson
Thursday 04 January 2024 09:19 GMT
Doctor Hilary Jones issues COVID-19 warning as cases rise

A new coronavirus variant is making the rounds in headlines: the JN.1 subvariant.

From 30 October to 5 November, the JN.1 subvariant was estimated to make up 3.3 per cent of global Covid-19 cases. On 19 December, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated JN.1 made up 27.1 per cent of all Covid-19 cases worldwide.

Now, JN.1 accounts for 39-50 per cent of circulating variants in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) said on 22 December, and the proportion of JN.1 is increasing more rapidly than other variants. Local officials in several states are also reinstating mask mandates in healthcare settings after the CDC reported an upward trend in hospitalisations for Covid-19 at the end of December.

Here’s what to know about the variant — and how infectious disease experts say we can combat it.

What is the JN.1 subvariant and does it carry a risk for more severe symptoms?

The JN.1 subvariant comes from the variant BA.2.68 and is yet another Omicron variant, said Thomas Russo, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the University of Buffalo’s School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences.

JN.1 differs from BA.2.68 because it has an extra spike protein, which researchers believe makes it more infectious than its parents, Mr Russo told The Independent. But that increased infectiousness does not mean it causes more serious disease than its fellow variants, he said.

“It’s important for people to realize we don’t think it’s causing any more serious disease,” Mr Russo said.

While the WHO has classified JN.1 as a “variant of interest,” the organization said it poses a low additional public health risk.

“Considering the available, yet limited evidence, the additional public health risk posed by JN.1 is currently evaluated as low at the global level,” the organization wrote on 19 December.

How can I protect myself from JN.1 this holiday season?

Laboratory data demonstrates existing vaccines, tests and treatments work against JN.1, the CDC said on 22 December. One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself and others from serious illness due to the JN.1 subvariant is to get an updated mRNA Covid-19 vaccine, such as those produced by Pfizer or Moderna, Mr Russo said.

“We really believe that the updated vaccine is going to protect against this JN.1 variant,” Mr Russo said. “It isn’t perfect at preventing infection, but what it’s really good at doing is decreasing the likelihood of hospitalisations and bad outcomes.”

Patients who haven’t received the most updated Covid-19 vaccine were likely last vaccinated a year ago — and those older vaccines may not be as effective against the variants that weren’t around when they were formulated, Mr Russo said.

Paxlovid, the anti-viral medication known to be effective in treating Covid-19, is also effective in treating the JN.1 variant, according to Amesh Adalja, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

“I think people sometimes forget how far we’ve come from a virus that wasn’t known to humanity before December 2019,” Mr Adalja told The Independent. “And now we have more tools to deal with SARS-CoV-2 than we do for any other respiratory virus”

Wearing a mask in crowded, indoor spaces with poor ventilation is also still an effective tool, Mr Russo said.

So, why is this variant making headlines?

With JN.1’s sudden spike and its new designation as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization, it may be hard not to feel worried about this recent variant.

But for Mr Adalja, this variant is just one of many that will continue to evolve from the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19.

“I think many people have this assumption that one day, it will just stop mutating, but life never stops mutating, that’s how evolution works,” Mr Adalja said.

“It’s something that happens with every respiratory virus, it’s just none of the other ones are considered headline worthy,” he continued.

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