Concerns about scary new COVID variant that took over in two months

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Friday estimated that Omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 sub-variants accounted for nearly half of the COVID-19 cases in the country in the week ending on 19 November, up from 39.5% the previous week, Reuters reported.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which are descendants of Omicron's BA.5 sub-variant, were first reported in the United States just two months ago, but


BQ.1.1 accounted for nearly 24.2% of recently detected cases, and BQ.1 for an estimated 25.5% of cases in the week of 19 November, the US CDC said.

There is no evidence yet that BQ.1 is linked with increased severity compared with the circulating Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said, but warned it may evade some immune protection, citing laboratory studies in Asia.

The new variants are closely monitored by regulators and vaccine manufacturers in case they start to bypass the protection offered by current vaccines.

The BA.5 sub-variant, which caused a large proportion of COVID-19 cases earlier this year, is being phased out, currently accounting for an estimated 24% of cases, compared with 33.8% in the week ending on 12 November.

Hungarian virologist Gábor Kemenesi wrote at the end of October that a significant change in the coronavirus landscape was the now visible emergence and spread of recombinant variants of the virus. This simply means that different variants are mixing at the gene level and are also evolving towards the aforementioned properties (avoiding immunity, better spread, etc.). He says we have reached the stage in the pandemic where several variants are spreading in parallel around the world and mutating in very similar directions (what researchers call convergent evolution).

"This broadly suggests that the virus is having very similar effects everywhere, probably due to the fact that most of the world already has some form of acquired immunity - either vaccinated, or encountered the virus, or both. Several variants of the virus, which have emerged and are spreading in parallel, are trying to trick the immunity they have developed by picking up similar mutations, at least at the antibody level - in effect making it easier to 'catch it again'," he explained.

As previously reported, Roy Gulick, chief of the division of infectious disease at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNBC:

"The ones that are particularly concerning are BQ.1 and another related one called BQ.1.1. Those are two that are expanding fairly rapidly in the United States". The "Scrabble" variants - so called for their identifying letters, which are all high-value consonants in the popular game - are, according to Gulick, highly resistant to Bebtelovimab, which is a commonly used and recommended therapy in the treatment of Covid-19, especially in patients who cannot take antivirals such as Paxlovid or Remdesivir.

"What these three variants have in common, so the two BQs plus the 4.6, and a couple of others, is that they are more resistant to the monoclonal antibodies that we’ve been using," he says. Their evasiveness is likely to make Bebtelovimab ineffective in patients with Covid-19 infection from these variants, he adds. "We are concerned that these new variants, because they will render some of the monoclonal [antibodies] not effective for prevention or treatment, that this could lead to increased cases," he says.

Cover photo: Getty Images

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