BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are among the more than 300 sub-lineages of the Omicron variant circulating globally, 95 percent of which are direct descendants of BA.5, according to the WHO. In early July, BA.5 became the dominant subvariant of the coronavirus circulating in the United States, but in October it started giving way to BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. Both contain genetic mutations that make it harder for the immune system to recognize and neutralize the virus. That makes them better at infecting people in spite of immunity from vaccinations and prior infections. Evidence from France, however, where the variants caused a surge in cases, suggests they do not appear to be causing increased rates of hospitalizations and deaths, Dr Eric Topol, a genomics expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute in La Jolla, California, said on Twitter.
Despite the fact that they’re driving a spurt in COVID cases, the World Health Organization (WHO) says XBB and BQ.1 are not different enough from each other, or from other Omicron lineages, to warrant labelling them new variants of concern. Variants of concern are those that show increased transmissibility, virulence or change in clinical disease, and a decreased effectiveness of public health and social measures. XBB and BQ.1 are subvariants of Omicron, which continues to be a variant of concern. Examining global data available to date, WHO said there is early evidence that there is a higher risk of COVID-19 reinfection from XBB and BQ.1 compared to other circulating Omicron subvariants. However, cases of reinfection appear to be largely occurring in those previously infected with pre-Omicron strains, such as Delta, WHO says.
Twitter exploded with outrage last week about a study in which scientists engineered the spike protein of Omicron—the fast-spreading but relatively mild variant of SARS-CoV-2 that’s now pervasive—into a deadlier strain of the coronavirus found in Washington state early in the pandemic. www.science.org/content/article/news-glance-climate-justice-ethical-mask-wearers-and-cdc-under-trump
The objective was to learn whether the protein alone explains Omicron’s lower pathogenicity. The hybrid virus killed 80% of infected mice, according to a preprint posted on 14 October by Boston University (BU) researchers. Critics worried it could escape the lab. They also argued that the work, partially funded by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), qualifies as “gain-of-function” (GOF) research that makes risky pathogens more dangerous and should have gone through a high-level federal review.
United States (US) health regulators on Friday estimated that BQ.1 and closely related BQ.1.1 accounted for 16.6% of coronavirus variants in the country, nearly doubling from last week, while Europe expects them to become the dominant variants in a month. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the variants are likely to drive up cases in the coming weeks to months in the European region. The two variants are descendants of Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant, which is the dominant form of the coronavirus in the US. Regulators in Europe and the US have recently authorised vaccine boosters that target it.
The subvariants known as BQ.1.1, BQ.1, BQ.1.3, BA.2.3.20 and XBB are among the fastest spreading of the main Omicron lineages. Based on UK data, the BQ variants, as well as BA.2.75.2 and BF.7 are the most concerning due to their growth advantage and immune evasiveness, the US health security agency has said. BF.7 has also been gaining ground in the US, where it accounted for 4.6% of Covid cases in the week ending October 8, from 3.3% the week before, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Bangladesh and Singapore, the XBB strain has been linked to a small surge in cases.