Virologist warns UK could see boom in Covid cases in the run-up to Christmas

A professor has called for people to brace themselves for a “fairly large rise” in Covid cases this Christmas. While official data suggests that virus levels are currently decreasing, scientists predict the rates will go back up again with the festive season in full swing.

A new subvariant of Pirola, known as JN.1, is causing concern among some experts. The Omicron spin-off hasn’t spread widely enough for the UK Health Security Agency to sub-categorise it in its sequencing data, but some experts warn it could evade the immune system more easily.

JN.1 is a sub-lineage of the BA.2.86 Omicron variant. After being first detected in Luxembourg in August, the strain has spread to the US, UK, France and other countries.

JN.1 has one mutation in its spike protein which dictates how easily it can infect cells. But there are also several other mutations elsewhere.

While there is still much unknown about the new variant, a virologist has warned that the Christmas period and more indoor gatherings could cause a rise in cases.

Professor Nicolas Locker, a virologist at the Pirbright Institute, told SkyNews: “We’re going to see a fairly large rise in cases this winter. Not because JN.1 is more problematic, infectious or severe, but because we’re losing our defences – protections afforded by our last set of boosters and our immunity is waning.”

JN.1 could become the next prevalent variant

Currently, the latest data suggests that the EG.5.1 variant, known as Eris, remains the most dominant in the UK, but JN.1 could replace it, according to professor of innate immunity at the University of Cambridge Clare Bryant. The expert explained it could become the “next common variant”.

She said that while there isn’t enough data to confirm anything yet, the changes in the spike protein could mean JN.1 evades immune systems more easily and replicates faster. Bryant told SkyNews: “The change in the spike protein will probably correlate to it being more infectious.

“And that’s what’s caused us the most problems so far – because you can’t control something that’s that infectious.” Another professor backed this and added that JN.1 could even cause more severe disease.

The new strain could cause more severe disease

Sheena Cruickshank, an immunologist at the University of Manchester, told SkyNews: “One of the mutations JN.1 seems to have has the potential to help it better latch onto cells, making it better at infecting us. That coupled with immune evasion mechanisms mean it may be tricky for our immune systems to get rid of.”

However, other experts reaffirm that there is currently no indication of increased infectiousness or disease severity.

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