KIRO NEWSRADIO OPINION

The SMN Interviews: Latest COVID-19 variant escapes natural immunity

Feb 4, 2024, 7:44 AM

This undated, colorized electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of...

This undated, colorized electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in early 2020 shows the Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, indicated in yellow, emerging from the surface of cells, indicated in blue/pink, cultured in a laboratory. (File photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases' Rocky Mountain Laboratories via The Associated Press)

(File photo: National Institute of Allergy and Infections Diseases' Rocky Mountain Laboratories via The Associated Press)

Seattle’s Morning News recently checked in with virologist Dr. Keith Jerome, who has helped us understand COVID-19 and other viral illnesses since the start of the pandemic. This winter, it seems viruses are plentiful and sticking with us longer. Personally, I caught something right before Christmas that was with me for more than four weeks. I still have no idea what it was, but I do know my COVID-19 tests were negative.

“It just does seem like there’s a lot going on and it’s partially that we’re aware of it and it’s partially that it’s real. None of (the viruses) are especially bad right now, the CDC is calling it a ‘moderate’ year,” Jerome said.

However, he says, we are still experiencing about 1,000 deaths a week in America due to COVID-19. That’s a somber reality as the other seasonal viruses, such as flu and RSV, do not kill at the same rate as COVID-19.

The most prevalent COVID-19 variant circulating right now is JN.1 (pronounced “jan one”) and is a sub-variant of omicron. JN.1 is very infectious, according to Jerome, and good at getting around the natural immunity we’ve built up from other variants.

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Jerome, who is the head of the Virology Division in the University of Washington Department of Laboratory Medicine, says that’s why getting updated COVID-19 booster shots will give you your best — shot — at escaping severe symptoms. This virus has not quite figured out how to escape a vaccine-induced immunity. But Jerome added that vaccination rates are not impressive.

“Not as much as probably one would like it from a public health point of view. (Only about 10% of children) have received the updated vaccine. For adults it’s about 20%. So, this is the latest omicron specific booster shot only about 20% of adults. People get the vaccine don’t get very sick from it. They do much better than they would have otherwise. So, that’s good.

“And it’s interesting to start to think about if we get in a world where only a few people are actually getting the shots, it may actually benefit them that everybody else isn’t, quite frankly, because JN.1 is an immune escape variant, but it’s escaping natural immunity because that’s what 80% of people have,” Jerome added.

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We also addressed the bird flu, which was wiping out flocks ahead of Thanksgiving last year and is having a concerning affect on the population of elephant seals in the Antarctic region. Why is that concerning? While it has been proven that avian viruses can jump to mammals, what we’ve seen in the elephant seals is the virus jumping from mammal to mammal. About 95% of that population was wiped out because of a bird flu variant.

Listen to the entire interview here.

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News with Dave Ross and Colleen O’Brien weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. on KIRO Newsradio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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