Saturday, December 30, 2023

Should we worry about the new COVID variant?

I seem to have asked this same question many times over the last few years. But yes, yet another COVID variant is starting to take centre stage.

It is technically known as JN.1 or BA.2.86 - the WHO appears to have run out of Greek letters - but it has also been given the nickname "Pirola" by some scientists groups (actually named after an asteroid, but with the unfortunate parallel connotation of "dick" or "cock" in some languages). The new "variant of concern" is an offshoot of the Omicron variant and the various variants that it yielded, like BA.4, BA.5, XBB.1.5, etc. However, it is as different from the first Omicron variants as Omicron was from the original virus, boasting over 30 additional mutations. COVID has come a long way.

As has been the trend over the last few years, this variant is probably even more contagious than previous ones, and we can expect some pressure on hospitals as a result. (Arguably, this has already begun, particularly given the crossover with the flu and RSV season.) Although it is getting hard to distinguish them, this is probably the 9th major wave of COVID.

However, all reports suggest that this new variant is probably not going to be that nasty, certainly not compared to the early days of the initial virus, the Delta variant, etc. So, we might not get that hospital pressure after all - experts are not clear on that.

Symptom-wise, JN.1 is not that different to other recent variants: runny nose (31%), cough (23%), weakness and fatigue (20%), muscle ache (16%), sore throat (13%). There are a couple of new ones, though: trouble sleeping (11%) and anxiety (10%). The loss of sense of smell and/or taste, common in early variants, is no longer an issue, it seems.

Recent vaccines, particularly the most recent one targeting BA.4/BA.5, should work reasonably well against JN.1, certainly in terms of reducing the severity of symptoms, although the old rapid tests we have been using for some years now will probably be even less reliable with this variant. But the sheer numbers of people who are getting infected will make it really hard to avoid this winter, vaccine or no vaccine. 

The usual advice applies: avoid crowds, wear a mask in crowded indoor spaces where you can't avoid them, wash your hands regularly, and hope. Remember, although the symptoms are not dissimilar to those of the common cold, and who wants a cold? And, unlike the common cold, there is also a small but not negligible chance that you may end up with long COVID, which will make your life miserable for months, even years, so you really don't want to go there.

All that being said, there are many scientists who believe that JN.1 may be something of a game-changer, and that it should be given a new Greek letter in order to broadcast more clearly to the people and governments of the world that this is new, and that it is potentially quite dangerous. It certainly marks a major step in the evolution of the virus.


More recent data - remember, this is still a new variant - suggests that BA.2.86/JN.1 might actually infect certain lung epithelial cells more than any variant since the Delta variant (remember THAT!)

So, more contagious and potentially more severe as well? Crap.

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