The JN.1 variant seems more transmissible than other strains, but it isn’t likely to cause more severe COVID
In response to the emergence of a sub-variant of the Omicron strain of the Corona virus, Bhutan’s Health Emergency Program within the Department of Public Health is taking proactive measures to ensure the country’s readiness. The new sub-lineage, JN.1, has been detected in neighboring India, prompting heightened surveillance efforts by the Ministry of Health (MoH).
Ugyen Tshering, the Senior Programme Officer at the Health Emergency Programme said that they are remaining vigilant in monitoring the evolving landscape of COVID-19 cases in India and globally. “Since the initial detection of the first JN.1 cases in India on December 18, 2023, the Ministry has strengthened its surveillance efforts,” he added.
He said that in anticipation of such a surge in cases, close coordination is maintained with the World Health Organization (WHO) Country Office, regularly keeping track of technical briefs and information on disease outbreaks provided by the WHO technical team and seeking their guidance and recommendations concerning this particular Variant of Interest (VOI).
To control the spread of the virus, Paro International Airport has been directed to conduct COVID-19 testing for individuals exhibiting flu-like symptoms upon arrival from India and other countries.
Moreover, the Ministry also aims to extend testing protocols to other ground crossing points, such as Phuentsholing and Samdrup Jongkhar, to enhance its readiness depending on the evolving situation.
While implementing preventive measures, Ugyen shared that the Ministry remains mindful of maintaining a balance that doesn’t unduly hinder trade and travel activities. “The MoH is also collaborating with international organizations and neighboring countries to exchange information and strategies in response to the new variant.”
As of now, Bhutan has not detected the JN.1 variant but has identified the XBB.1.16 sub-variant of Omicron.
However, Ugyen urged Bhutanese citizens traveling to India or Indian nationals visiting Bhutan to practice personal hygiene measures such as covering coughs and sneezes, regular hand washing, and, if experiencing flu-like symptoms, avoiding crowded areas and wearing masks.
He said that vaccination against COVID-19 and the flu is strongly recommended, especially for vulnerable groups such as the elderly, pregnant women, and individuals with underlying medical conditions.
“Individuals returning with flu-like symptoms from abroad are urged to visit the nearest hospital for COVID-19 testing.”
Meanwhile, the Royal Center for Disease Control (RCDC) shares the gene sequence result by uploading it to the global platform, namely the Global Initiative on Sharing All Influenza Data (GISAID), which enables collaborative surveillance.
Bhutan has successfully administered three doses of the COVID-19 vaccine to over 90% of its population.
Moreover, MoH successfully administered a bivalent 5th dose to high-risk populations, achieving a coverage rate exceeding 65%. He added, “This aligns with the WHO’s affirmation that existing vaccines remain effective in preventing severe illness and mortality caused by the JN.1 variant and other SARS-CoV-2 variants currently in circulation.”
Currently, the flu vaccinations are also being administered to high-risk populations, including pregnant women, elderly people, people with co-morbidity, children aged 6–24 months, and health workers.
He added that the current health facilities in the country should be adequate to handle the situation. “We have five COVID-19 testing laboratories situated in strategic locations to perform the test if needed.”
Further, he added that quarantine centers are adequate in the bordering towns, if required based on need, additional resources including PPE will be procured.
The Ministry has been actively engaged on several platforms, particularly social media, disseminating advisories on preventive measures for flu since the start of the flu season in October 2023.
Meanwhile, the new JN.1 variant causes sore throats as their first symptoms, often followed by congestion. The illness’s’ past hallmarks, such as a dry cough or the loss of taste or smell have become less common.
Severe cases, meanwhile, are still characterized by shortness of breath, chest pain or pale, gray or blue skin, lips or nail beds, which indicates the lacks of oxygen.
The new variant, JN.1 has been detected in several countries around the world including the US, UK, China, and India. According to the latest data from the Indian Union Health Ministry, the active cases of corona virus in India have increased to 2,311.
Nidup Lhamo from Thimphu