After recently writing about the JN.1 COVID-19 variant, recent information from the CDC shows that the variant now makes up over 40% of new COVID-19 cases. It is expected that JN.1 will account for 39-50% of all SARS-CoV-2 variants at the beginning of 2024.
This updated article will review what we know about JN.1, including whether it might lead to a renewed epidemic in the USA and other areas.
What is the JN.1 COVID variant?
As I mentioned, the variant is identified as JN.1, a subvariant of BA.2.86. Like BA.2.86, JN.1 is related to the Omicron variant that was first identified in late 2021. Up until recently, the CDC grouped JN.1 with BA.2.86 in its data. JN.1 was first detected in the U.S. in September 2023 and is termed “a notable descendent lineage” of Omicron subvariant BA.2.86 by the World Health Organization.
Like BA.2.86, JN.1 has numerous mutations that may make the virus more capable of causing infections in people who have previously had COVID-19 or who have received the COVID-19 vaccines.
However, the CDC states in a 23 December 2024 report that:
JN.1’s continued growth suggests that the variant is either more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems than other circulating variants. It is too early to know whether or to what extent JN.1 will cause an increase in infections or hospitalizations.
It’s clear that information about this new variant is preliminary, so we don’t know how dangerous this variant might be.
So what we know right now is that it may evade an individual’s immunity, whether from vaccines or previous infection. And we don’t know if it’s more infectious or will cause more severe illness. We would all like the answers to these questions, but it takes time.
What is the current status of the JN.1 COVID variant?
On 8 December 2023, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began. tracking the JN.1 variant. In the CDC updated report on the JN.1 COVID variant, here are some key facts:
- Cases — The new variant comprises an estimated 44.2% of all SARS-CoV-2 variants in the United States.
- Severity — The CDC stated that “At this time, the spread of JN.1 does not appear to pose additional risks to public health beyond that of other recent variants.” The CDC plans to monitor domestic and international data on JN.1 to determine if it might become a public health issue.
- Transmission — CDC projects that JN.1 will continue to increase as a proportion of COVID-19 infections. JN.1 is currently the fastest-growing variant in the United States.
- Testing — If you are in the USA, you can still receive free COVID-19 test kits. If you didn’t order test kits when they were initially made available in September 2023, you can now order eight test kits. The test detects all known COVID-19 variants.
Are vaccines effective against it?
In a preprint published on 26 November 2023 in bioRxiv, which has not been peer-reviewed, researchers found the new XBB.1.5 vaccines (from Pfizer and Moderna) protect against XBB.1.5 (another COVID-19 variant) along with JN.1 and other “emergent” viruses. According to the study, when given to uninfected people, the updated vaccines boosted antibodies about 27-fold against XBB.1.5 and about 13- to 27-fold against JN.1 and other emergent viruses.
In other words, the currently available COVID-19 vaccines boost the immune system substantially against the variant. There is no data available on whether naturally infected individuals will be immune to the new variant.
Although the new JN.1 COVID-19 variant is spreading across the USA fairly rapidly, it does not appear to be dangerous to individuals who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Individuals who are not vaccinated with the current booster are probably at the greatest risk of contracting this variant.
At this time, the CDC and other public health agencies are closely monitoring the transmission and severity of the disease, and I am sure they will raise an alarm if things get worse.
For those of you who dismiss these new variants, remember that over 3% of deaths in the USA are caused by COVID-19. That translates to over 1000 additional deaths every week that are attributed to COVID-19. If one of these variants does avoid immunity (whether from vaccines or natural infection), it could lead to another disaster. COVID-19 is not going away any time soon.