New Delhi: India faces a renewed challenge in its battle against COVID-19 with the detection of the JN.1 sub-variant in Kerala. As of December 20, 21 cases of the JN.1 sub-variant have been detected in Goa, Kerala and Maharashtra, prompting the Union Health Minister to direct states to monitor emerging strains.
India’s active COVID cases crossed 2,000 mark and stood at 2,669 cases, marking the highest number of new cases detected since May 21.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has classified JN.1 as a separate “Variant of Interest” (VOI) after the sub-variant was detected in 38 countries apart from India.
The JN.1 variant is an evolution of the Omicron strain, which dominated the COVID landscape in late 2021 and early 2022. Unlike its predecessors, this strain primarily manifests upper respiratory symptoms such as cough, runny nose, and fever. Crucially, while the risk of severe illness remains lower than previous variants, individuals with comorbidities and the elderly remain vulnerable.
The pressing question on everyone’s mind is the efficacy of current preventive measures. What precautions should one take? Are masks really effective in cutting down the transmission? Is it a deadly virus and should we be worried? How is the JN.1 sub-variant different from the other COVID variants in the past? What are its symptoms and is a booster dose of the vaccine needed?
To answer all these and more, team Banega Swasth India speaks with Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal, Senior Consultant, Pulmonology, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru, Karnataka. Here are the highlights:
NDTV: The JN.1 strain of coronavirus has been detected in India and worldwide and COVID-19 cases are seeing a surge in infections yet again? How worrying is the trend?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: After a long time, we’re seeing a more aggressively infectious virus, that means it’s easily transmissible and it has a new structure on spike protein. Spike protein is the protein that coronavirus uses to attach itself to the human selves. And that is also what is targeted for immunity by vaccines and so on. And it’s completely novel, so if the body does see this virus, it may not recognise it and mount an immune response. It seems to be rapidly increasing in infection rates across the world. First identified in September, it is now expected to be Number 1 cause of driving up the COVID infections in North America and Europe. Eventually, whatever plays out in other countries in terms of infection, tends to replicate in India. It’s important that we recognise it and take some basic precautions. Now, the virus itself does not seem to be as dangerous as we saw in the first and second waves with the Delta and Alpha variants. Most of the reports indicate causing only mild diseases like body pain, sore throat, cough, and so on; we are not seeing a lot of reports of pneumonia. However, there were two fatalities in Kerala as well as one in Karnataka about three days ago. We don’t know whether these mortalities were COVID itself or somebody with a serious illness developing COVID. But for the most part and what we are seeing currently is that COVID is very mild and it goes away quite easily. So, is there a cause of concern? I think if you have comorbidities such as diabetes, bad lungs, heart disease, cancer, take precautions.
NDTV: How is this strain of COVID-19 virus different from the previous variants?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: Compared to the other variants in the past, this is an Omicron strain. This has been the predominant strain since December 2021-January 2022. The third wave was caused by the Omicron variant. At that time, the majority of Omicron was XBB and Corona is a virus which when it mutates, its genetic makeup changes very often quite quickly. That’s why we see these frequent changes and new strains of COVID emerge. So, over time, it has gradually changed its protein coating which is what the body recognises when you have an immune reaction. Most of the Omicron infections basically show upper airways symptoms i.e. cough, runny nose, little bit of body pain, fever -those are the major symptoms, you could get nausea vomiting or Diarrhoea that is less apparent with this strain. We are not seeing a lot of COVID pneumonia. It’s nothing like what it was in the second wave or the first wave. We are just seeing very sporadic cases and even abroad, where these patients are being reported, there are not many reports of pneumonia which is probably the most important thing that we really need to be worried about.
NDTV: What are the precautions that need to be taken to deal with this strain of COVID virus?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: We have been doing this for three and a half years. We all know what to do. Hand washing is very important. So, frequently wash your hands. If you touch your nose or mouth and you are sick, wash your hands. Particularly if you are sick, please don’t go to work, don’t go to school until you are better. Wear a mask. If your symptoms are not getting better after a few days, get tested. That is more of a precaution so that you don’t pass on the infection to other people. That’s very important. Now if you have a persistent illness, go get tested for COVID, see the appropriate medical person and most of the time, for symptomatic patients, paracetamol, antihistamines and cough syrups are enough. Other precautions if you particularly have health issues, probably for the next month, not just COVID, we are seeing a lot of influenza and other viral infections, avoid crowded places like theatre or markets. Avoid poorly ventilated areas especially if you do have other ailments and if you absolutely have to go, wear an N-95 mask.
NDTV: How effective are masks against this strain of virus?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: Masks are generally very effective for any viral illness. It does cut down transmissions from one person to another. If one person who is sick is wearing a mask, it does decrease the chances of transmission and if both are wearing a mask, the scope of the infection spreading decreases further. The government of Karnataka has issued orders saying that people over the age of 60 and people with health conditions should wear a mask. So, definitely, it is effective in decreasing the transmission. I would prefer an N-95 mask because that has the smallest pores and it is the best option to decrease the transmission. A surgical mask would be the second best. I would avoid cloth masks because they don’t really work that well.
NDTV: How effective are COVID vaccines in fighting this new strain of virus?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: Currently, the availability of COVID vaccines in India is very limited. They are simply not very easily available and most of the vaccines that we have are for the Delta variant. We don’t have any updated vaccine at this current point in time. Some of the whole virus vaccines such as Covaxin, perhaps could give some protection but the problem right now is availability. We don’t really have easy access to vaccines right now in India. I believe the government is working on it. And if you are able to get a vaccine, a booster, it may not be a bad idea at this point.
NDTV: Will India see COVID surge once again that can lead to imposition of restrictions in the coming months?
Dr. Vivek Anand Padegal: I certainly hope not. We all are hoping and praying that we don’t have a surge. If we do have a surge, hopefully, it’s just a mild spread, where people have cough and cold and body pain and it gets better in 2-3 days. We all definitely do not want to go through what we went through in the first and second and to an extent in the third wave. But I think some common sense precautions, while this thing spreads, to slow it down would definitely help. Like masking is a good idea, especially if you are at a high risk. Older people above 60 years of age and people with heart, lung disease, diabetes or organ transplant or cancer, these types of people should probably be more aware and wear a mask in high risk situations. COVID pneumonia can happen particularly if you are immunocompromised, say if you are on cancer medication or immunotherapy or chemotherapy or somebody with bad lungs or heart could potentially develop COVID pneumonia. You don’t need to wear a mask at home obviously and if you are sick, please don’t go to work or school until you are feeling better because what you have could be COVID or any other viral infections which could be transmitted to other people. And if you are around other people, wear a mask because that decreases your chances of spreading the infection to other people and practise proper hand hygiene. Wash your hands especially if you touch your mouth or nose, use your elbow when you are sneezing or coughing. If you are in a plane or theatre or market, best to wear a mask. N-95 masks are better as they tend to have less penetration of viruses and surgical masks are probably the second best. These masks don’t last forever. You can wear it for a limited time period but it needs to be replaced. You can’t use it for months on end. These are essentially disposable masks.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which in its Season 10 is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Ayushmann Khurrana. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In a world post COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental well-being, self-care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.