Immune escape and attenuated severity associated with the SARS-CoV-2 BA.2.86/JN.1 lineage

medRxiv [Preprint]. 2024 Apr 19:2024.04.17.24305964. doi: 10.1101/2024.04.17.24305964.


The SARS-CoV-2 BA.2.86 lineage, and its sublineage JN.1 in particular, achieved widespread transmission in the US during winter 2023-24. However, the increase in infections was not accompanied by increases in COVID-19 hospitalizations and mortality commensurate with prior waves. To understand shifts in COVID-19 epidemiology associated with JN.1 emergence, we compared characteristics and clinical outcomes of time-matched cases infected with BA.2.86- derived lineages (predominantly representing JN.1) versus co-circulating XBB-derived lineages in December, 2023 and January, 2024. Cases infected with BA.2.86-derived lineages received greater numbers of COVID-19 vaccine doses, including XBB.1.5-targeted and BA.4/BA.5-targeted boosters, in comparison to cases infected with XBB-derived lineages. Additionally, cases infected with BA.2.86-derived lineages experienced greater numbers of documented prior SARS-CoV-2 infections. These associations of BA.2.86-derived lineages with immune escape were confirmed when comparing cases diagnosed during periods when JN.1 was the predominant circulating lineage to cases diagnosed during November, 2023. Cases infected with BA.2.86-derived lineages, or during periods when JN.1 was the predominant circulating lineage, also experienced lower risk of progression to severe clinical outcomes requiring emergency department consultations or hospital admission. Sensitivity analyses suggested under-ascertainment of prior infections, even if differential between cases infected with BA.2.86-derived lineages and non-BA.2.86 lineages, could not explain this apparent attenuation of severity. Our findings implicate escape from immunity acquired from prior vaccination or infection in the emergence of the JN.1 lineage and suggest infections with this lineage are less likely to experience clinically-severe disease. Monitoring of immune escape and clinical severity in emerging SARS-CoV-2 variants remains a priority to inform responses.

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