The World Health Organisation has classified the JN.1 coronavirus as a “variant of interest” but said current evidence shows its risk to public health is low.
At least two experts said while the variant can evade the immune system and transmit more easily than other circulating variants, it has not shown any signs of more severe disease.
So, while there might be more cases with the variant, JN.1 does not pose a greater risk, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health virologist Andrew Pekosz said.
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JN.1 was previously classified as a variant of interest as part of its parent lineage BA.2.86, but WHO has now classified it as a separate variant of interest.
WHO said current vaccines would continue to protect against severe disease and death from JN.1 and other circulating variants of the COVID-19 virus.
The subvariant JN.1 was responsible for 15 per cent to 29 per cent of COVID cases in the United States as of December 8, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The CDC had said there was no evidence JN.1 presented an increased risk to public health relative to other circulating variants and an updated vaccination could keep people protected against the variant.
JN.1 was first detected in the US in September, according to the CDC.
Last week, China detected seven infections of the COVID subvariant.