COVID-19: WHO designates JN.1 ‘variant of interest’ amid surge in global spread

Although the current evaluation of the global public health risk is “low”, the UN health agency warned that with the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, the new variant “could increase” the burden of respiratory infections in many countries, noting other diseases such as RSV, influenza and childhood pneumonia, which are already on the rise.

Rapidly increasing spread

The classification of JN.1 as a separate variant of interest (VOI) is due to “its rapidly increasing distribution” across the globe, WHO said in a statement issued Tuesday.

JN.1 has been found in many countries, including India, China, Great Britain and the United States.

Previously, the JN.1 was classified and tracked as part of its parent line BA.2.86, which itself is a descendant of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19 disease.

Compared to its parent line BA.2.86, JN.1 has a further mutation (the L455S mutation) in the tip protein.

Risk assessed as ‘low’

The WHO said that based on the currently available data, “the additional global public health risk posed by JN.1 is currently assessed as low.”

“Despite this, with the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, JN.1 may increase the burden of respiratory infections in many countries,” it added.

The WHO also highlighted that current vaccines continue to protect against severe disease and death from JN.1 and other circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2.

Other respiratory diseases

COVID-19 is not the only respiratory disease at play. Influenza, RSV (Respiratory Syncytial Virus) and common childhood pneumonia are on the rise, according to the WHO.

It advised people to take measures to prevent infections and serious illness by using all available tools, including wearing a mask when in crowded, closed or poorly ventilated areas and keeping a safe distance from others.

It also urged everyone to put safety first by covering coughs and sneezes; cleaning hands regularly; and stay up-to-date on vaccinations against COVID-19 and influenza, especially if you are at high risk for serious illness.

In addition, people should stay home if they are sick and to get tested if they have symptoms or if they may have been exposed to someone with COVID-19 or the flu.

COVAX facilitated the delivery of around two billion doses of COVID vaccines globally, shown here, a delivery of Pfizer COVID-19 in vaccines in Nepal in 2021.

COVAX facilitated the delivery of around two billion doses of COVID vaccines globally, shown here, a delivery of Pfizer COVID-19 in vaccines in Nepal in 2021.

The global vaccine initiative is winding down

Also on Tuesday, WHO announced to COVAXthe landmark multilateral mechanism for equitable global access to COVID-19 vaccines, launched in 2020, will end on December 31, 2023, as COVID-19 vaccinations transition to regular immunization programs.

Since launching in 2020, COVAX delivered nearly two billion doses of vaccines to 146 economies and averted an estimated 2.7 million deaths in low-income economies.

“Low- and lower-middle-income economies will continue to receive COVID-19 vaccines and supply support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance in 2024 and 2025, with 83 million doses requested so far for 2024 from 58 economies,” WHO said in a statement.

COVAX was the pillar of vaccines Access to the COVID-19 Tools (ACT) Acceleratorthe pioneering global collaboration to accelerate the development, production and equal access to COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines.

It was led by Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance; Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI); WHO; and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Unprecedented emergency preparedness

With the rallying cry “no one is safe until everyone is safe”, COVAX partners urged the world to place vaccine equity at the heart of the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that each country has at least enough doses to protect the most vulnerable.

“The joint efforts of all partners to ensure a just response to the pandemic helped protect the future of millions of children in vulnerable communities,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director.

“This huge and historic undertaking is something we can collectively be proud of and build on. UNICEF will continue to provide vaccines to the world’s youngest to stop the spread of all preventable diseases and build strong health systems for the future.”

WHO video | The importance of revaccination against COVID-19

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