December 22, 2023
JAKARTA – The Health Ministry has confirmed the detection of the highly transmissible COVID-19 sublineage JN.1 in Indonesia, just as millions of people are set to embark on their year-end holiday travels.
According to disease control and prevention director general Maxi Rein Rondonuwu, the ministry had recorded at least 41 confirmed JN.1 cases as of Wednesday.
The relatively new Omicron sublineage, which the World Health Organization classified as a variant of interest (VOI) earlier this week, had been detected in samples taken from five cases in November.
While most cases were detected in Jakarta, five others were discovered in Batam, the Riau Islands.
“Like other Omicron subvariants, most patients who had contracted JN.1 experienced mild symptoms,” Maxi said on Wednesday, as quoted by kompas.id.
JN.1 is a descendant of the Omicron subvariant BA.2.86, informally called “Pirola”, and is thought to be behind the recent uptick in COVID-19 cases in several countries, including the United States and Singapore.
The variant was first detected in the US in September, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Read also: Hundreds of COVID-19 cases emerge in Jakarta, South Tangerang
The new strain made up less than 0.1 percent of cases in late October, but made up to 29 percent of new infections detected as of Dec. 8. “The continued growth of JN.1 suggests that it is either more transmissible or better at evading our immune systems,” the CDC said in early December.
But the CDC also acknowledged that there was no evidence so far that the strain presented an increased risk to public health compared to other variants in circulation. It also suggested that currently available vaccines and treatments were still effective against JN.1.
While the majority of JN.1 cases showed mild symptoms, Imran Pambudi, the ministry’s infectious disease prevention and control director, said the new strain could cause severe disease in high-risk groups, such as the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and people with weakened immune systems.
“We urge the public to implement good personal hygiene to prevent infection, such as frequent handwashing, wearing masks when sick or in crowded places, staying home [when ill] and getting COVID-19 vaccines, especially for at-risk groups,” Imran said.
Due to its increasing global spread, JN.1 has been designated as a variant of interest (VOI), one level below variant of concern (VOC) on WHO’s classification system, and refers to a variant’s relative prevalence compared to others circulating in an area or region and its potential epidemiological changes “to suggest an emerging risk to global public health”.
According to the WHO’s initial JN.1 risk evaluation published on Dec. 19, the new variant is rated “low” for overall risk to public health.
It remains unclear if JN.1 is driving the recent uptick in local cases, as the Health Ministry had detected in early December another COVID-19 subvariant classified as a VOI: EG.5, informally called “Eris”.
Since EG.5 was first reported to the WHO in February, it has spread to more than 90 countries and makes up slightly over half of the COVID-19 variants circulating globally, due to its ability to escape immune responses.
Despite its higher transmissibility, EG.5 reportedly has a lower fatality rate compared to other subvariants.
The detection of JN.1 in the country comes as millions of Indonesians prepare to travel during the year-end holiday season.
A recent survey by the Transportation Ministry revealed that 107 million people, or 40 percent of the population, were planning to travel over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Health authorities urged travelers to remain vigilant against COVID-19 during the holiday season, in view of the significant increase in new cases since November.
The government recorded more than 2,000 new COVID-19 cases in the past week, almost twice the 1,245 cases recorded during the previous week, with at least 16 deaths recorded nationwide since Dec. 1.
Read also: Govt to stop paying for COVID-19 treatments, vaccines on Sept. 1
The ministry confirmed on Thursday 453 new cases, the second-highest daily figure since July 12, after the 486 cases recorded on Wednesday.
Airline and train operators recently advised all passengers to weak masks and adhere to the COVID-19 health protocols during their trips.
The Health Ministry plans to provide a third round of COVID-19 booster doses for the elderly and people with comorbidities by next year to protect them and the general population against the new strains. (nal)