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Why the New COVID Variant Could Make You Sick Longer, Doctor Says

The CDC says the latest viral offshoot is now the fastest growing in the U.S.

It can be hard to forget the twists, turns, and uncertainty that characterized some of the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic. But even though life has gotten more or less back to normal in the years since, the virus remains a threat as it continues to evolve and adapt. Scientists closely monitor these changes for anything that could potentially create another serious public health crisis. Now, a doctor says the latest COVID variant has a specific difference that could make you sick for longer.

RELATED: Doctor Reveals COVID Symptoms in Patients Who Haven't Gotten a Fall Booster.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an offshoot of the virus known as JN.1 currently makes up 15 to 29 percent of cases in the U.S. as of Dec. 8. The agency believes it's the fastest-growing variant nationally due to the drastic spike witnessed since it was first detected in September and classified as an offshoot of Omicron subvariant BA.2.86. But this might suggest that the variant—also known as Pirola—could be better at evading peoples' immune systems.

"The narrative here is that JN.1 may be somewhat more contagious," Rebecca Wurtz, MD, MPH, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, told USA Today. "Thanksgiving happened, winter is starting to happen, and that's probably what caused it to jump like it did."

In its latest update, the CDC notes that there's no evidence to suggest the newest variant causes more severe illness. However, one doctor points out that the viral offshoot could potentially be harder to shake off after infection due to a mutation in its spike protein.

"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," Sheena Cruickshank, PhD, immunologist at the University of Manchester in the U.K., told SkyNews. "That coupled with immune evasion mechanisms mean it may be tricky for our immune systems to get rid of."

The more protracted battle with the virus will likely involve some familiar ailments as well. Doctors say that many of the classic COVID symptoms have been noted with JN.1, with some peaking through as more common.

"So with the new variant, the Pirola variant, we know that not only do you get temperature, runny nose, a headache, we still have that loss of sense of smell, but you might actually get diarrhea with it," Nighat Arif, MD, told U.K. news program This Morning, per The Independent. "Stomach cramps can also appear with the Pirola strain."

"Symptoms can usually be self-treated, but if you develop more severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, you should seek medical advice," she added.

The CDC says that the latest COVID-19 vaccine should increase protection for JN.1 as well as other currently circulating variants. And while the agency says it's keeping an eye on the viral offshoot to see if it will create another December spike in cases, some doctors emphasize that there is no reason for the public to be overly alarmed.

"There are game-changing events that we've seen during the pandemic," John Moore, PhD, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, told USA Today. "This has not been one of them."

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Zachary Mack
Zach is a freelance writer specializing in beer, wine, food, spirits, and travel. He is based in Manhattan. Read more
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