It’s almost four years since COVID-19 was officially declared a pandemic. Although the state of emergency has now passed, and vaccines and treatment advances have helped turn the tide, the virus is very much still out there. The latest variant, JN.1, has brought with it some unexpected new symptoms – but how worried should we be?
JN.1 is a descendent of the “Pirola” variant, BA.2.86, that began to spread in late Summer 2023. In fact, it was only a single change in the virus’s spike protein that gave rise to JN.1. It’s now the dominant variant in the UK, responsible for around 60 percent of new COVID cases, as well as in the US according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data.
The fact that JN.1 has become so dominant has been taken as evidence that it is either more transmissible than previous variants, or better at evading the immune system. The latest UK figures at the time of writing, for the seven days up to and including January 3, 2024, show cases are up by 8.6 percent.
At first glance, a variant that gets around the immune protection conferred by vaccines or prior infections sounds like bad news, but the number of people catching COVID is only part of the story. It’s also important to look at how sick they’re getting.
There, at least, there may be some cause for cautious optimism. Paul Hunter, a professor at the University of East Anglia, took a look at the figures and told New Scientist that this wave of the pandemic is resulting in far fewer serious illness cases than before.
“On average, someone catching COVID-19 in this wave is less likely to be admitted to hospital,” Hunter said. “I think immunity is probably playing a big role, but it may be that the latest variant is also less virulent.”
That’s not to say that the number of people being hospitalized with the virus is no longer an issue at all. In the US, admissions to hospital for COVID-19 saw increases for nine consecutive weeks up to the first week of January, predominantly in the 65 and over age group.
As we’ve learned, hospitalization is not the only factor that should be taken seriously with COVID-19. Even mild infections carry with them the risk of long-lasting symptoms that can be very debilitating.
So, should we be worried?
While the numbers of deaths from COVID-19 no longer make as disturbing a reading as they did at the height of the pandemic, the virus still has the potential to put enormous pressure on healthcare systems – which in the Northern Hemisphere are already trying to cope with the usual winter illnesses like flu and respiratory syncytial virus. On an individual level, people are still dying or developing life-altering complications.
At a recent briefing, Dr Tedros Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization, encouraged world leaders not to take their foot off the gas when it comes to COVID-19 surveillance.
Vaccination, for those able to access it, remains key when it comes to protecting yourself. A study published just this week in The Lancet concluded that over 7,000 hospitalizations and deaths in the UK during the summer of 2022 could have been avoided with better vaccine coverage.
Ever-controversial mask mandates are also making a comeback in some quarters, and we can all do our part to try and limit the spread by doing our best to keep our distance from others when we're sick.
While for many people, infection with JN.1 is likely to be mild and self-limiting, if the last four years have taught us one thing, it’s that you can never completely write off COVID-19 as a potential threat. So far, the data do not seem to suggest that we need to be especially worried about this variant. However, they do underline the importance of continuing to keep a close watch on this disease – it could still surprise us.
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The content of this article is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of qualified health providers with questions you may have regarding medical conditions.