India detects JN.1 Covid variant in Kerala as case numbers rise

States advised to implement precautionary measures against spread of coronavirus

Women in Chennai, India, during a surge in Covid-19 cases earlier this year. EPA
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India has reported its first case of the JN.1 coronavirus sub-variant in a recent surge in Covid-19 case numbers, prompting health authorities to ask states to increase precautionary measures against the spread of infections.

The JN.1 sub-variant has been spreading in other countries including the US, China and Singapore, leading to pressure on clinics and hospitals. It is currently considered a variant of interest by the World Health Organisation, although the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has said that there is as yet "no evidence that JN.1 presents an increased risk to public health relative to other currently circulating variants".

The case detected in India was a 79-year-old woman in the southern state of Kerala, the Health Ministry said.

Coronavirus cases in India

The country recorded 142 new Covid infections on Monday, taking the number of active cases to 1,970, according to figures released by the ministry on Tuesday. There were 260 and 335 new cases on Saturday and Sunday respectively, while one death was reported in Kerala and another in the neighbouring state of Karnataka, it said.

The number of cases is a sharp increase from fewer than 400 in early December, according to data on the Indian government's Covid tracking app Aarogya Setu.

"As the Covid-19 virus continues to circulate and its epidemiology behaviour gets settled with Indian weather conditions and circulation of other usual pathogens, it is important to keep the momentum going to effectively deal with the challenges in public health," Health Secretary Sudhansh Pant said in a letter to state governments on Monday.

He urged states to take measures to reduce the risk of transmission.

The Karnataka state government on Monday made face masks mandatory for people older than 60 and also for those with comorbidities.

What is the JN.1 Covid variant?

The JN.1 sub-variant is descended the BA.2.86 variant that carries more than 30 mutations in the spike protein, indicating a high potential for immune evasion, according to the health ministry.

"Covid is with us permanently and we have to be vigilant about new strains like JN.1, a sub-lineage of BA.2.86 Omicron, that appears correlated with increase in hospitalisation for respiratory illness," said Ramanan Laxminarayan, president of health research organisation One Health Trust.

"We don’t yet know if the JN.1 strain is behind these hospitalisations. But given that Covid vaccination in India is no longer a continuing effort and JN.1 is able to avoid immune response to be able to spread rapidly, there is a possibility that lack of population immunity puts us – especially the elderly population – at risk for illness and hospitalisation,’’ he told The National.

India suffered the world’s fastest-surging Covid outbreak in 2021 with daily new infections exceeding 400,000, which overwhelmed the nation’s underfunded health system, with hospitals running out of beds, oxygen and medical supplies.

Updated: December 20, 2023, 12:37 PM