In the ever-evolving game of COVID-19, a new challenger has entered the ring: JN.1, a viral upstart rapidly rising through the ranks and threatening to throw a winter curveball.

T his isn’t just another “variant of interest” lurking in the shadows; JN.1’s swift ascent and potential to fuel winter surges have the World Health Organization (WHO) sounding the alarm bells.

JN.1 – A mutant on the rise

Born from the BA.2.86 lineage, JN.1 was first spotted in August 2023, sporting a unique L455S mutation in its spike protein. This tweak is like a ninja mask for the virus, helping it dodge our immune system’s defences.

Over the past month, JN.1 has gone from a minor blip to a major player, its proportions skyrocketing from 3.3% in early November to a whopping 27.1% by December. Countries like France, the US, Singapore, and the UK are feeling the brunt of its surge, raising concerns about a potential winter wave just as the festive season gets underway.

While JN.1’s rapid spread is unnerving, the good news is that it doesn’t seem inherently more dangerous than other variants. However, its immune-evasion skills could lead to higher infection rates, potentially overwhelming healthcare systems already battling seasonal flu and other respiratory illnesses. Imagine a perfect storm of viruses – that’s the scenario the WHO wants to avoid.

“WHO advises people to take measures to prevent infections and severe disease using all available tools.
These include:
- Wear a mask when in crowded, enclosed, or poorly ventilated areas, and keep a safe distance from others, as feasible
- Improve ventilation
- Practise respiratory etiquette - covering coughs and sneezes
- Clean your hands regularly
- Stay up to date with vaccinations against COVID-19 and influenza, especially if you are at high risk for severe disease
- Stay home if you are sick
- Get tested if you have symptoms, or if you might have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or influenza”

— World Health Organization’s advice
JN.1’s immune-evasion skills could lead to higher infection rates.

Hope on the Horizon: Vaccines and Vigilance

The glimmer of hope comes from our trusty old friend: vaccines. The WHO believes existing vaccines, like the monovalent XBB.1.5, should still offer significant protection against JN.1, although their effectiveness might be slightly reduced. Scientists are closely monitoring the situation, and new, updated vaccines could be on the horizon.

But let’s face it: vaccines alone won’t win this fight. Masking up in crowded spaces, practising good hygiene, and staying home when sick are the weapons in our arsenal.

JN.1 may be a new twist in the COVID tale, but it doesn’t have to derail our progress. By understanding the science, remaining vigilant, and employing our tried-and-true public health measures, we can navigate this winter surge with resilience and responsibility.

PMP Magazine



Text: This piece was first published in PMP Magazine on 19 December 2023.
Cover: Unsplash/Viktor Forgacs. (Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)
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