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What we know so far about the new COVID variant, including symptoms

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As respiratory virus season kicks off in North America, a heavily mutated COVID-19 variant is expected to keep spreading throughout the holidays, but experts say the risk to public health remains “low.”

The variant, called JN.1, is classified by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “variant of interest,” but health experts say the variant does not show any signs of more severe disease if contracted. 

“Considering the available, yet limited evidence, the additional public health risk posed by JN.1 is currently evaluated as low at the global level,” WHO said in a report that evaluates the initial risk of the strain. 

WHO anticipates that this variant “may cause an increase in SARS-CoV-2 cases amid asurge of infections of other viral and bacterial infections, especially in countries entering the winter season.”

It's a similar message to that of the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC), where experts said last week that low vaccination rates compared to this time last year are leaving the public at a greater risk of serious illness.

According to WHO, the countries that reported the largest proportion of JN.1 sequences submitted as of last week were France (20.1 per cent, or 1,552 sequences), the U.S. (14 per cent, 1,072 sequences), Singapore (12 per cent, 934 sequences), and Canada (6.8 per cent, 512 sequences). 

WHO added that it is yet to be determined whether the high transmissibility of JN.1 could be associated with “primary human nasal epithelial cells,” which comprise the lining of the nasal passages in the human respiratory system, or whether this is linked to “non-spike proteins” in the strain, meaning differing functions of the variant the evade immune responses. 

SYMPTOMS

According to the CDC, symptoms of this strain are no different from previous variants of COVID-19, most specifically the Omicron BA.2 variant, of which this strain is a descendent. 

“The types of symptoms and how severe they are usually depend more on a person’s immunity and overall health rather than which variant causes the infection,” the CDC said on its website. 

Typical symptoms include a dry cough, headache, fever, and fatigue. 

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