Nov. 13, 2022 – Some scientists are calling it déjà-vu. About this time last year, the Delta variant of COVID-19 was becoming old news. Then the Omicron variant appeared with the news that it was easily spread and could bypass vaccines. 

Now, two subvariants of Omicron, known as BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, are showing the same similarities.

"It's a little bit eerily familiar," Jeremy Luban, MD, a physician-scientist who tracks the virus, told NPR. "This time of year last year we were optimistic. We were coming out of the Delta wave, and it was steadily decreasing, and we went into Thanksgiving to wake up to Omicron.”

For the first time, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 now make up the largest share of new COVID-19 infections, according to end-of-week data from the CDC. The pair now account for 44% of new infections, up from 33% the week prior. 

Early laboratory tests show that the new subvariants are better at escaping vaccines and booster shots than previous variants. 

Health officials are worried about immunocompromised and organ transplant patients because several antibody treatments that they relied on don’t work on the latest versions of the virus. Also of concern is the fact that no new treatments appear to be in development.

Omicron’s “last two mutations have pretty much eliminated every single monoclonal antibody on the market right now in terms of their efficacy. It’s been interesting to see that there hasn’t been a real push for a second generation of these monoclonal antibody therapies because, honestly, it should be straightforward to come up with antibody therapies that target Omicron,” virologist Andy Pekosz, PhD, said in an interview published by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. 

Nearly 289,000 positive COVID-19 cases were reported by the CDC this past week. Case counts have steadily risen since mid-October. But they are not showing the large increases like the nation is seeing with the flu or respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

Meanwhile, the number of people receiving COVID-19 boosters or vaccines has reached the highest level since January, NBC News reported. More than 5.6 million shots were given this past week, up by 1 million shots from the week prior, according to a White House official. 

Nationwide, just 10% of people are fully vaccinated and also have received the most updated booster, the CDC says.

Show Sources

NPR: “New omicron subvariants now dominant in the U.S., raising fears of a winter surge.”

CDC: “COVID Data Tracker Variant Proportions,” “COVID Data Tracker Trends in Number of COVID-19 Cases and Deaths in the US Reported to CDC, by State/Territory.”

BioRxiv: “Substantial Neutralization Escape by the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant BQ.1.1.”

Public Health On Call Podcast: “Keeping Track of COVID-19 Omicron Variants.”

NBC News: “Covid vaccine and booster shots in U.S. hit highest weekly level since January.”

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