New COVID Variant Gaining Traction in US

Lisa O'Mary

October 17, 2022

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The emerging COVID-19 variant BQ.1 and one of its descendants now account for more than 1 in 10 cases in the U.S., according to the CDC's latest data.

Just 1 month ago, the variant accounted for less than 1% of cases.

"When you get variants like that, you look at what their rate of increase is as a relative proportion of the variants, and this has a pretty troublesome doubling time," Anthony Fauci, MD, said in an interview with CBS News. Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and also the chief medical adviser to President Joe Biden.

There are also concerning features of the BQ.1 variant, which include mutations that potentially could escape vaccines and treatments for COVID-19.

Currently, the most widespread variant in the U.S. is the Omicron subvariant known as BA.5, which accounts for 68% of all infections. One of the go-to treatments for BA.5 infections is monoclonal antibodies, which may not be as effective when fighting the up-and-coming strains of BQ.1 and its descendant BQ.1.1, according to experts.

"That's the reason why people are concerned about BQ.1.1, for the double reason of its doubling time and the fact that it seems to elude important monoclonal antibodies," Fauci told CBS News.

Currently, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 appear most widespread in the New York and New Jersey region, accounting for nearly 20% of infections there, according to the CDC.

But because the new variant is a descendant of Omicron, Fauci said the currently available booster shots are still the best first line of protection against this up-and-coming threat.

"The bad news is that there's a new variant that's emerging and that has qualities or characteristics that could evade some of the interventions we have. But, the somewhat encouraging news is that it's a BA.5 sub-lineage, so there are almost certainly going to be some cross-protection that you can boost up," he said.

Sources

CDC COVID Data Tracker, Oct. 15, 2022.

CBS News: "'Pretty troublesome': New COVID variant BQ.1 now makes up 1 in 10 cases nationwide, CDC estimates."

CDC Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices Meeting, Sept. 1, 2022: "Interim Clinical Considerations for COVID-19 Vaccines: Bivalent Boosters."

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