New COVID variant ‘taking off like a rocket’

Alisha Dorrigan

11/01/2024 4:48:16 PM

Despite states and territories reporting large case increases, many Australians have not received booster vaccinations to protect against JN.1.

JN.1 graphic
The highly infectious JN.1 variant is driving an increase in COVID activity around the world.

A new and highly transmissible COVID variant known as JN.1 is spreading throughout the community, sending infection rates soaring in NSW, Victoria and Queensland, while other states and territories are also reporting signs of increased transmission.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has also reported that JN.1, a descendent of Omicron subvariant BA.2.86, is rapidly spreading across the globe. However, while the WHO says JN.1 is more infectious than previous variants, at this stage it is not associated with increased disease severity.
Speaking with newsGP, University of South Australia biostatistician and epidemiologist Professor Adrian Esterman explained how the variant has developed immune-evading capabilities.
‘It is a direct ancestor of BA.2.86 … which was so different from previous Omicron subvariants, but it didn’t take off,’ he said.
‘Numbers did start increasing, but not as rapidly as one would have expected.
‘Then we had this slight change to the spike protein that’s actually given it a much better ability to evade our immune system – and now JN.1 is taking off like a rocket.’
With other variants still active in the community, Professor Esterman describes the current situation as a ‘double whammy’ but says GPs are well placed to protect vulnerable patients and that the available vaccinations and antivirals still provide good protection against JN.1.
‘Many GPs are careful and mask up, but I think it really should be made mandatory, and in acute care settings as well,’ Professor Esterman said.
‘While we’re still in the pandemic, and we are still in the pandemic, I think it should be part of normal practice – these new subvariants are so transmissible and we’ve got RSV and the other respiratory infections around as well.’
Despite the concerning increase in COVID transmission, many people are still not up to date with their boosters, even though research shows the available vaccines still provide protection.
‘You’ve only got 20% of elderly people with an updated booster [and] I think that’s a major concern,’ Professor Esterman said.
‘That’s something we simply can’t be complacent about.
‘[GPs] are in an ideal position to contact their elderly patients … and explain to them the importance of getting an updated booster shot and protecting themselves with face masks.
‘There have been some good studies which show that the XBB.1.5 vaccines work quite well against JN.1, so it gives quite good cross-immunity.’
Dr Megan Steain, a senior lecturer in immunology and infectious diseases from the University of Sydney, told newsGP the advice on protecting vulnerable patients against new and emerging COVID variants remains largely the same.
‘Vaccination still provides very good protection, particularly against severe disease, and getting a booster vaccine if you haven’t had one or been infected in the last six months is a good idea – and is very important for those over 75 or at higher risk,’ she said.
‘The new monovalent XBB.1.5 vaccine would be my pick, but any COVID-19 vaccine available will still provide good protection.’
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Dr Linda Nan Arias   12/01/2024 4:53:19 PM

If it's only more infectious and is less virulent, why the hand wringing?? The Covid vaccines caused A LOT of morbidity, in all age groups.