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Should You Worry About the Latest COVID-19 Variant?

Health officials note an increase in cases, so scientists are vigilant about JN.1, the latest COVID-19 variant appearing in the US and abroad.

I know that you are sick and tired, literally and figuratively, of hearing about COVID-19. Wherever we go, people are acting as if COVID is a thing of the past. And yet we keep hearing that friends and family members are still coming down with COVID, some for the very first time. The latest COVID-19 variant circulating in Europe and the US has been labeled JN.1. It is a mutation of the Pirola strain, BA.2.86. The rapid spread of JN.1 suggests that it is evading our immune systems and maybe even the vaccines. As of the most recent CDC report, over 20% of new COVID cases are linked to JN.1.

Infectious disease experts are worried that JN.1 may be more transmissible than previous versions of Omicron (a highly contagious form of SARS-CoV-2). Along with many of the typical symptoms of COVID-19, the Pirola variant frequently causes eye irritation, a skin rash or mouth ulcers. JN.1 was first detected in the US in September, and is likely causing similar symptoms.

Will the Booster Work Against JN.1?

Scientists expect the updated COVID booster to work against JN.1. I am not so sure. This variant is spreading very fast and I do not trust the data collectors to be on top of JN.1 since most people are testing at home. The only reliable way to determine what’s happening is when people are hospitalized with a bad respiratory infection and test positive for COVID.

Scientists are still not sure if this latest COVID-19 variant is extra scary. But there are some worrisome signals. Over the last few weeks, visits to an emergency room are up over 50%. Over 51,000 people trekked to an emergency department last week. Anyone who has visited an ER in recent months knows that you have to be pretty darn sick to make such a trip.

There is another red flag flying. Wastewater (sewage) analysis has been a reliable predictor of what is coming. And the National Wastewater Surveillance System (NWSS) reveals a rapid increase in the viral activity level for COVID-19.

What Do You Call the Latest COVID-19 Variant?

If you have lost count of variant names, it is hardly surprising. The challenges of following technical nomenclature has led researchers to develop creative names such as Centaurus, Kraken and Eris. Those are a bit more memorable than JN.1, B.1.1.7 or XBB.1.5. But even those nicknames have proliferated so fast it has been hard to keep up.

Pirola, a name derived from the Greek letters Pi and Rho, has some scientists concerned because it has more than 30 mutations on its spike protein. Such a big change might make it more infectious or more difficult for our immune systems to detect.

What Should We Do About JN.1?

Public health experts are urging everyone to maintain their usual precautions against COVID-19.

  • Stay home if you are sick;
  • Wear an effective mask if you are inside with other people;
  • Improve ventilation as much as possible;
  • Wash your hands.
  • Consider vaccination

For people who believe the mRNA vaccines are a problem, there is now Novavax COVID-19 vaccine. It utilizes a very old technology that has been around for decades.

The company calls it an adjuvanted vaccine. It does not use aluminum or mercury (ingredients that we worry about a lot). Instead, the Matrix-M adjuvant comes from the bark of the Soapbox (Quillaja saponaria) tree.

An adjuvant boosts the body’s immune reaction to the vaccine. You can read more about Matrix-M adjuvanted vaccines in the journal Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics (April 27, 2023).

Why Should You Care About JN.1, the Latest COVID-19 Variant?

A lot of visitors to this website still maintain that COVID is just not a big deal. They keep repeating that it is no worse than a bout of the flu.

I won’t beat around the bush. That is just BS. COVID has left a trail of tears in its wake, and I am not just referring to all the deaths. Millions of people are now  struggling with long COVID symptoms.

A study published in the Lancet (Dec. 14, 2023) concludes:

“In this comparative analysis of long-term health outcomes of people admitted to hospital for COVID-19 versus those admitted to hospital for seasonal influenza, we show that the absolute rates of death, adverse health outcomes, and health-care utilisation are high for both viruses, but significantly higher for COVID-19 compared to seasonal influenza.

“Our results show that, compared to seasonal influenza and despite changes in SARS-CoV-2 during the course of the pandemic (from pre-delta to delta to omicron), COVID-19 yielded a significantly higher burden of death, health loss across the spectrum of nine of ten organ systems (with the notable exception of pulmonary outcomes), and health-care utilisation.”

That’s a lot of medicalese. The bottom line is that COVID-19 is much worse than influenza! And long COVID can cause long-lasting brain fog, cardiovascular complications (including stroke), fatigue, shortness of breath, inability to exercise and so much more. I worry a lot about long-term neurological complications. Will people who caught COVID be at higher risk for dementia down the road? We won’t have an answer to that question for decades.

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.”.
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