Expert Doctors: If You Notice This Symptom, It Could Be the New COVID Variant

Updated: Dec. 20, 2023

Experts announce a new Omicron subvariant has been designated with its own strain name as a "variant of interest" due to two major characteristics.

COVID-19 has mutated again, just in time for Christmas. This week a new variant, JN.1, has emerged in the headlines and been labeled as a “variant of interest” by the World Health Organization (WHO).

What this designation implies is that JN.1 is spreading exceptionally quickly, potentially leading to severe complications amid expert concerns about low COVID vaccination rates.

Here’s what a “variant of interest” means in comparison to a “variant of concern”

Variants of the COVID-19 virus are monitored by the CDC in the United States and by various organizations worldwide because even minor changes can have significant implications for how the body combats the disease and whether current vaccines remain effective. A variant is classified as a “variant of interest” when it exhibits one of three characteristics:

  • the ability to break through a formerly infected individual’s immunity 
  • whether it’s natural or driven by a vaccine
  • a reduction in the effectiveness of treatments; or increased transmissibility or severity.

This classification is a step below a “variant of concern,” which typically receives a Greek letter designation from the WHO (such as the Delta variant). COVID variants of concern are expected to be more severe in terms of

  • symptoms
  • predicted strain on healthcare systems
  • resistance to current vaccines.

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Here’s why JN.1 is designated as a variant of interest

JN.1 has earned the designation of a “variant of interest” because it appears to be exceptionally transmissible, primarily due to a notable mutation in its spike protein. In early November, JN.1 accounted for just under 4% of infections, but by the first week of December, it had claimed nearly a 22% share, closely trailing HN.1.

As announced on December 19, 2023, due to this surge, the WHO has separated JN.1 from its previous sublineage as an Omicron subvariant, and assigned it individual status for further tracking and study.

The primary concern with JN.1 is its high transmissibility. Its rapid spread suggests that it can bypass immunity, which has created heightened concern in the lead-up to the busy holiday season. However, the WHO emphasizes that JN.1 does not appear to be more lethal than the current variants, stating, “The additional global public health risk posed by JN.1 is currently evaluated as low. Despite this, with the onset of winter in the Northern Hemisphere, JN.1 could increase the burden of respiratory infections in many countries.”

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Symptoms associated with JN.1

In general, individuals infected with JN.1 are reported to experience several of the same symptoms as recent COVID-19 variants, including:

  • persistent cough
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • muscle aches
  • fever
  • potential loss of taste and smell
  • gastrointestinal symptoms

Experts flag that while JN.1 does not appear to differ significantly in terms of symptoms, its high transmissibility is concerning, especially given the vaccination rate in the United States. As of early December, only about 17% of adults have received the updated vaccine. On December 14, the CDC issued an urgent message via the Health Alert Network (HAN), urging healthcare providers to intensify their efforts to encourage vaccination.

It typically takes about two weeks to confer immunity. If you’re preparing for Christmas and New Years visits and haven’t received the vaccine this fall or winter, it may be advisable to wear a mask, practice social distancing, and consciously monitor yourself for symptoms.

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If you do contract COVID-19, rest assured that the CDC still expects tests to detect JN.1 infections, and there is no indication that current treatments will be ineffective against this variant. If you experience symptoms resembling a cold or the flu, it is essential to use an at-home COVID test and then contact a healthcare provider for further guidance on treatment.