Plenty of people are concerned about the spread of new omicron subvariants in the US. There’s been an uptick in transmission of a subvariant named BQ.1 and its descendant BQ.1.1 in Europe, and there’s concern that the US could be next. Already, the BQ variants are driving transmission in New York.
Experts in the US are actively tracking the spread of the BQ subvariants on a day-to-day basis. I spoke to a few of them to learn how likely it is that the BQ subvariants will drive a COVID-19 wave in the states. I also asked the researchers if they’re concerned about the emergence of any other new variants in the near future—after all, the original omicron upended many holiday plans last year, as well as caused death rates to rise among older people.
The BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants are born from the BA.5 subvariant, the dominant strain that was responsible for about 88 percent of cases in the US in late August this year, says Anne Hahn a postdoctoral associate at Yale school of Medicine, who tracks COVID-related genetic information from samples collected at hospitals in New Haven, Connecticut.
Mathematical models clearly suggest that the BQ subvariants’ circulation is growing in the US, says Hahn. Typically, “the US is a bit behind Europe when it comes to variants,” she says. But that doesn’t mean the BQ variant will definitely become the dominant variant here (BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 currently make up about 17 percent of cases). Stacia Wyman, a genomics scientist at UC Berkeley says that BQ.1 is fairly likely to take over the US in winter, as its predecessor BA.5 is starting to lose traction.
Mark Zeller, a project scientist at Scripps Research Institute in California, who studies COVID-19 variants from samples across the world, also expects that there could be a surge in number of omicron cases this winter in the US. COVID-19 has become more of a seasonal infection now, with cases expected to rise in the winter. He says the increase this year will likely be driven by the currently circulating BQ subvariants. “But I would be surprised if BQ.1.1 will cause an increase comparable to previous year’s omicron surge,” Zeller says. However, he adds that we need to watch how things pan out.
With the pool of subvariants that are circulating right now, it is hard to say for sure if one of them will win out to drive a COVID-19 winter surge in the US, says Wyman. Hahn explains that another omicron subvariant called the XBB is the predominant strain in Asia (it’s been spotted in the US as well). “It may be [that variants are] more localized now, instead of one variant being dominant globally,” says Hahn.
It is very tricky to predict if there could be evolution of new variants this winter, says Zeller of the Scripps Institute. So far, the evolution of omicron subvariants including the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 have been quite predictable as they were evolving fairly gradually, and there were not huge leaps from the previous subvariants. But we cannot be certain that the virus would always evolve at a slow rate. “This virus is not done evolving. So, it’s definitely worth monitoring,” says Zeller. Hahn says we can expect to have new subvariants all the time. But the question will always be if a new variant is important only on a technical level that experts would want to simply discuss and track, or if it will truly be of a public health concern.
There’s nothing that needs to be panicked about as far as the current situation is concerned, Wyman emphasizes. Amidst sensational headlines that evoke panic, and alarm-causing tweets from epidemiologists like Eric Feigl-Ding, Wyman thinks we need to have a more measured view on how the virus is evolving at this time. The reason to believe we needn’t worry too much about the BQ subvariants is that we now have a bivalent booster that will probably be very effective against them, points out Wyman. Bivalent boosters from Moderna and Pfizer, both have the omicron BA.5 strain, the parent of the BQ omicron subvariant.
But as many as half of the adults in the states are little to completely unaware of the bivalent boosters, according a recent survey by the Kaiser family foundation. “There was not a very successful effort to get out the information about the availability of the booster,” Wyman says. Take the rise of BQ to get the updated shot if you haven’t yet.