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Shadow of a COVID wave powered by JN.1 variant looms over early 2024

IANS Jan 01, 2024

As cases of the new Omicron sub-variant JN.1 continue to rise globally, including in India, there is a fear among many about a possible COVID wave early next year that may derail normalcy once again. Are these fears real?

India recorded 743 fresh cases of COVID-19 in the last 24 hours (as of 30 Dec). The total active caseload increased by seven, reaching 3,997, according to the Union Health Ministry.

A total of 162 JN.1 cases have been reported in India to date, with Kerala reporting the highest number at 83.

With this, the total count of coronavirus cases in India since its outbreak in January 2020 has reached 4,50,12,484. The death toll due to COVID-19 cases in India has risen to 5,33,358, reflecting seven deaths in the last 24 hours.

Globally, cases of JN.1 have been reported from the US, some European countries, Singapore and China.

Maria Van Kerkhove, COVID-19 Technical Lead at WHO, said on 30 Dec that from a limited number of countries reporting, there has been a 35 per cent increase in COVID-19 hospitalisations and ICU admissions in the last month.

“SARS-CoV-2, influenza and other respiratory pathogens continue to be on the rise. Take measures to protect yourself from infection,” she advised.

Kerkhove said that JN.1 continues to rise in detection, but what matters is that COVID-19 is circulating in all countries.

“You can protect yourself from infection and severe disease. Mask, ventilate, test, treat, vaccinate: boost every 6-12 months depending on your risk group,” she posted on X.

According to Dr Soumya Swaminathan, former DG, of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), the JN.1 COVID-19 variant is more transmissible and infectious as compared to other variants.

However, “the public health risk is still low because we all have immunity now because of the vaccines and the natural infections we've had in the past,” she said.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified JN.1 as a separate "variant of interest" given its rapidly increasing spread but said it poses a "low" global public health risk.

According to Dr Ishwar Gilada, Consultant in Infectious Diseases Unison Medicare and Research Centre, Mumbai, till JN.1 becomes a ‘variant of concern’ (VoC), it should not bother the common man.

“India has managed the COVID-19 pandemic much better than many powerful countries. India had one of the best vaccinations against COVID-19, with 75 per cent of the population fully vaccinated and 35 per cent population having received booster (third dose),” he told IANS.

The third wave orchestrated by the Omicron Variant mainly with the BA.2 sub-variant infected the majority of the population with the least morbidity and mortality.

"In fact BA.2 was a saviour for India, from infections with BA.4 and BA.5 as well as descendants of BA.2 like BA.2.86 (Pirola). We are much better prepared now than ever before. Not only that, India supports more than 50 countries in Africa and elsewhere with preparedness, medicines and vaccines,” he added.

Though identified in August 2023 in Luxembourg and currently present in more than 40 countries, JN.1 has neither caused larger morbidity nor any remarkable mortality.

“Deaths are only in co-morbid people globally. There is neither clustering of infections with JN.1 nor it is yet a dominant strain of coronavirus in India. The presence of JN.1 has not increased demand for oxygen, beds, ICU beds or ventilators,” said Dr Gilada.

Experts request masking for senior citizens and those with severe comorbidities, as well as those going to crowded places.

"Individuals with certain comorbidities face an elevated risk of severe outcomes and increased mortality from COVID," Dr. Vikas Chopra, Sr. Consultant Interventional Cardiologist, Primus Super Specialty Hospital, told IANS.

"Common comorbidities associated with higher death risk include cardiovascular diseases like hypertension and coronary artery disease, chronic respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), diabetes, obesity, and compromised immune systems," Dr. Chopra said.

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