New COVID-19 variant driving winter wave of infections

The new JN.1 strain of COVID-19, dubbed ‘Juno’, has contributed to the rapid rise of COVID-19 infections worldwide. Although winter virus figures in the UK reached highs in December and seemingly fell over Christmas and the new year, experts suggest a surge in COVID-19 cases may reappear as the holidays come to an end.

According to the UK Health Security Agency and the Office for National Statistics, the prevalence of the virus appeared to be experiencing a downward trend in England and Scotland in the two weeks leading up to the 3rd of January. As more people return to school and work, infection rates are expected to increase. January’s cold temperatures will also encourage more indoor socialising, further compounding the risk of transmission.

The Juno variant is a derivative of Omicron, the dominant strain that circulated in early 2022. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, symptoms of COVID-19 have generally remained the same across different variants. Persons infected with JN.1 can expect to have symptoms such as fever, congestion, cough, body aches, and sore throat. Currently, no evidence suggests that JN.1 leads to a more severe infection.

Individuals are encouraged to receive the most up-to-date COVID-19 vaccine available to better defend against JN.1 and other recent variants. The Juno variant has an additional spike protein mutation that makes it easier for the virus to bypass pre-existing immunity. Older vaccines, while still providing immunity, are less equipped to deal with newer variants. Outdated vaccines, in addition to the variant’s mutation, make the strain highly transmissible. 

The winter uptick in flu and COVID-19 cases placed a massive strain on the NHS. Hospitalisation rates are once again on the rise. Staffing and supply shortages have adversely impacted health care provision and indicate a need for government support. The six-day strike by junior doctors from 3 to 9 January further disrupted health care services. It will take months for hospital operations to recover from the longest strike in NHS history. With COVID-19 cases expected to rise, the ability to support infected individuals will be challenging. 

Another wave of COVID-19 infections in the UK would coincide with a broader international trend. The United States and Europe have been experiencing sharp increases in positive cases, and Australia has reached record-level cases not seen in more than a year. The JN.1 variant has spread globally, demonstrating a need to remain cautious and follow public health guidelines.

While most people experience mild to moderate symptoms of the virus, vulnerable populations may experience a more severe infection. Similarly, anyone is at risk of developing Long COVID

The new variant is a reminder that although COVID-19 is no longer a global public health emergency, individuals should continue to take precautionary measures to avoid health risks to both themselves and others. Practising good hygiene and keeping informed on developments from health officials are important. 

As the holiday season comes to an end, everyone has a role to play in keeping themselves and others safe and healthy. 

Image credit: fusion medical science via unsplash

Image description: SARS-Cov-2 virus with its membrane proteins