Just in time for respiratory virus season, there’s a new COVID-19 variant dominating cases in the United States — and yet another version of the coronavirus that’s already starting to spread overseas.
“Virus evolution is what we’re seeing in real time,” said Kelly Oakeson, chief scientist for next generation sequencing and bioinformatics for the Utah Department of Health and Human Services.
The variant that’s now the most prevalent in the United States, labeled HV.1 by scientists, “is just getting better at getting into our cells. It’s better at making us sick. It’s better at doing what viruses do,” Oakeson said.
The variant hasn’t yet reached dominant status in Utah but should soon, he said, since the state tends to lag about two weeks behind the national variant proportions estimated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Here’s what Oakeson said Utahns should known about HV.1:
- It’s more infectious
It can definitely infect more people. That’s why we’re seeing it increase in prevalence in the population.
- HV.1 doesn’t appear to be making people more sick than the variant that’s been responsible for most U.S. cases since the summer, EG.5, also known as Eris.
The symptoms seem to be the same. The severity seems to be the same as EG.5.
- But people are still getting “really sick,” so COVID-19 shouldn’t be considered mild.
I wouldn’t call it severe but I wouldn’t call it mild. Mild seems to instill in people’s minds, ‘Oh, it’s nothing at all. I don’t have to worry about it. it’s not going to cause any serious effects.’ People are still dying from this, I wouldn’t call that mild. People are still getting long COVID from EG.5 or HV.1. I wouldn’t call that mild. People are still ending up in the hospital with this. I wouldn’t call that mild.
COVID-19 could kill them ... (or) they could get it, have a runny nose, and be fine. There’s a huge dynamic range there of symptoms and severity.
- The timing of the new variant is worrisome.
If it was happening in the summertime, it might have less of an impact on everything. But now that it’s happening in the fall/winter ... people are indoors, it’s getting colder outside. There’s more holidays.
You’re probably going to see an increase in cases for sure. Is that driven by HV.1? Is that driven solely by the seasonality, what time of year it is? No, it’s probably a combination of all of those things. ... We’ve seen this now, year after year.
Less is known about an even newer variant, JN.1, that’s so far shown up mostly in Iceland. It’s a mutation of the BA.2.86 variant, also called Pirola, that’s derived from the omicron variant that sent COVID-19 cases soaring to record levels in early 2022.
Oakeson said there have been some 178 cases of JN.1 reported worldwide, including 118 in the past 10 days. Besides Iceland, which accounted for about half of the cases as of Oct. 23, countries where JN.1 has been seen include the U.K., France and Portugal, he said.
The new version of Pirola was detected in the United States in September, but makes up less than 0.1% of the nation’s COVID-19 viruses, according to the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
Oakeson, who initially called Pirola “alarming” because its high number of mutations was similar to what was seen with omicron, is taking a wait-and-see approach with JN.1
“We’re definitely watching it. I’m not sure I’m at the same level of concern I was with BA.2.86 just because this one is a descendent of those and we didn’t see that take off in the U.S. like it did in other parts of the world,” the chief scientist said.
The latest estimate from the CDC for the two weeks that ended last Saturday show HV.1 is now the most prevalent variant in the United States, seen as accounting for just over a quarter of all COVID-19 cases.
Eris, however, is still close behind at nearly 22%, according to the CDC estimates. Both HV.1 and Eris are descendants of XBB.1.5, another omicron-related variant also known as Kraken, that’s targeted by the new, updated COVID-19 vaccine.