Pakistan resumes COVID-19 testing of inbound passengers amid new variant fears

National Institute of Health issues advisory for prevention, control of JN.1 sub-variant in Pakistan

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An airport official checks the temperature of a passenger upon his arrival at the Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar on January 27, 2020. — AFP
An airport official checks the temperature of a passenger upon his arrival at the Bacha Khan International Airport in Peshawar on January 27, 2020. — AFP

  • Major airports including Karachi, Islamabad lack testing kits.
  • Testing will help detect, prevent JN.1 sub-variant of COVID-19.
  • "2% mandatory testing resumed to detect JN.1 variant."

ISLAMABAD: Amid growing concerns over new COVID-19 variant spread, the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC) has decided to resume mandatory testing of 2% of inbound passengers, The News reported on Thursday.

The testing will help detect and prevent JN.1 sub-variant of COVID-19.

However, reports regarding the unavailability of testing kits and Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) later emerged, as major airports, including Islamabad and Karachi, lacked the facilities, officials told the publication.

"On the directives of caretaker federal Health Minister Dr Nadeem Jan, surveillance at the country’s points of entry, including airports, has been increased and 2 percent mandatory testing for COVID-19 has been resumed to detect JN.1 variant of SARS-CoV-2 or coronavirus," the NCOC official told The News on Wednesday.

Ironically, neither the COVID-19 testing kits nor the PPE were available at the many points of entry for the healthcare workers associated with Border Health Services (BHS). Officials said neither the kits nor the PPE were procured after the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared in June this year that COVID-19 was no longer a public health emergency of international concern.

Although the COVID-19 positivity remained extremely low in the country and no case of its JN.1 variant had been detected till Wednesday, the National Institute of Health (NIH) issued an advisory for the prevention and control of JN.1 sub-variant.

Quoting the World Health Organization (WHO), the NIH advisory said that JN.1 sub-variant has been classified as a Variant of Interest (VOI) and is fundamentally an offshoot of BA.2.86 sub-variant of the omicron variant of COVID-19. It was first reported in August 2023 by US-CDC.

In recent weeks, JN.1 has been reported in many countries, and its prevalence is rapidly increasing globally, the National Institutes of Health's (NIH) advisory said, adding that this rapid growth is being observed across the three WHO regions with consistent sharing of SARS-CoV-2 sequences, i.e. the region of the Americas, the Western Pacific and the European regions, with the largest increase seen in Western Pacific from 1.1% in epidemiological week 44 to 65.6% in epidemiological week 48.

“The objective of this advisory is to alert and facilitate the health authorities and other stakeholders for ensuring timely preventive and control measures encompassing preparedness to deal with increased workload expected in the outpatient and in-patient departments during the next few weeks,” the NIH stated.

The National Institute of Health further stated that although JN.1 is rapidly replacing other sub-variants and its transmissibility is expected to be high, it is unlikely that it can produce a situation like the earlier phase of the pandemic, hence its morbidity and mortality are low as of current statistics.

“Clinical presentation of JN.1 infection is similar to other sub-variants including cough, sore throat, congestion, runny nose, sneezing, fatigue, headache, muscle aches and altered sense of smell. However, symptom presentation depends on an individual’s immunity from vaccination and previous infection. It’s important to know that existing vaccines, tests and treatments still work well against JN.1,” the advisory stated.

Furthermore, quoting the WHO’s overall risk assessment, the NIH Islamabad said despite a rapid increase in JN.1 infections, available limited evidence does not suggest that the associated disease severity is higher as compared to other circulating variants. Currently, available vaccines also offer the same protection against this JN.1 sub-variant as with other variants, it added.

Regarding prevention and control measures, the NIH advised that if someone is sick or has been in close contact with persons having a flu-like illness, frequent and thorough hand washing with soap and water and the use of hand sanitiser, if soap and water are unavailable is advised.

NIH further advised people to opt for respiratory etiquettes by covering their mouth and nose while sneezing or coughing with their elbow, advised sick patients to stay at home, rest, avoid crowds, and adopt social distancing measures until recovery.

The NIH termed vaccination as the most effective way to prevent infection and its severe outcomes, particularly in high-risk groups. More antibodies with complete vaccine or booster shots, the greater the chances of reducing COVID-19 infection, especially among high-risk groups including the elderly population, people with comorbidities and people working in high-risk settings, it added.