New COVID variant BQ.1 now accounts for 1 in 10 cases nationwide, CDC estimates

In just over a month since a new COVID variant known as BQ.1 was first named, this strain and a descendant called BQ.1.1 have already grown to account for more than 10% of new infections across the country, according to updated estimates published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“When you get such variants, you look at what their rate of increase is as a relative proportion of the variants, and this has a rather troublesome doubling time,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the president’s chief medical adviser, in an interview. with CBS News.

It comes as federal health officials have been preparing for a widely expected resurgence of COVID-19 this fall and winter. BQ.1 variants have already surpassed many rival strains in European nations from England to Germanywhich has already seen renewed waves begin.

The CDC previously had the bundle BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 with their common parent BA.5 in the bureau’s weekly “Nowcast” estimates. BQ.1 was first named by scientists in early September, based on sequences seen across the United States and several other countries.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 each currently account for an estimated 5.7% of infections around the country, the agency said. The remainder of BA.5, which had dominated a wave of cases over the summer, has shrunk to 67.9% of circulating variants.

“While BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. represent a small but rapidly growing subset of the Omicron variant, BA.5 remains the dominant lineage in the United States,” CDC spokeswoman Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 also appear to be on track to overtake the only other strain that still outranks them: BA.4.6which currently accounts for 12.2% of infections.

Nordlund said the agency had not listed BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 separately in the agency’s previous weekly variant reports because they “circulated by less than 1% in the empirical data.”

Of all regions, the New York and New Jersey area has the highest proportion of BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 infections. About 20% of infections are already from BQ.1 or BQ.1.1, the CDC estimates.

News of the new variants’ growth comes as COVID-19 readings continue to largely improve nationwide.

Only about 1% of Americans live in counties seeing “high” community levels of COVID-19, where the CDC encourages indoor masking and other steps to slow the virus. Less than half of the counties are experiencing community transmission bad enough to warrant requiring universal masking in hospitals and nursing homes, during latest federal guidance.

But data from Health and Human Services Region 2, which spans New York and New Jersey, has also tracked a recent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations and nursing home infections.

“As much as you want to feel good about the fact that cases are down, hospitalizations are down, we don’t want to declare victory too early. And that’s why we have to keep an eye on these new variants,” Fauci said.

Concerns about immunity and monoclonal antibodies

Fauci also echoed concerns about the variant’s mutations can avoid medication like Evusheld, which is an important antibody drug used to protect immunocompromised Americans from the virus.

“That’s why people are concerned about BQ.1.1, for the dual reason of its doubling time and the fact that it seems to escape important monoclonal antibodies,” Fauci said.

Dr.  AS Anthony Fauci
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci

Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

A spokesman for AstraZeneca said it currently has no data on how BQ.1 might affect its drug.

The FDA warned doctors earlier this month about data suggesting other variants now on the rise around the country could threaten high-risk patients who had relied on Evusheld’s protection.

BQ.1 is one of a wide range “soup” of new strains that scientists have been following because of concerns that their mutations at specific positions on the virus’s spike protein could fuel a increase.

Experts have quoted the “significant number of unique mutations” in variants like BQ.1 by speculating that it could evade immunity that humans have from previous infections or vaccination.

So far, however, little is known about the impact these mutations may have in influencing the severity of the disease, which would require further studies in animals and humans.

Fauci said he expected updated COVID boosters from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which was recently expanded to children as young as 5would be able to help stem a potential surge driven by BQ.1.

“The bad news is that there is a new variety that is emerging that has qualities or characteristics that may evade some of the interventions that we have. But the somewhat encouraging news is that it is a BA.5 sub-lineage, so there’s almost certainly going to be some cross-protection that you can strengthen,” he said.

More than 14.7 million Americans have so far received an updated COVID booster, which includes a component targeting BQ.1’s parent BA.5.

That’s about 7% of the 209 million originally eligible for shots when they were first given the go-ahead last month.

After accelerating in the wake of the initial booster rollout, numbers released late Thursday by the CDC show the daily pace of new COVID shots is now slowing.

The lack of between the pace of updated boosters and the typical uptake of the annual flu vaccine at this time of year has also been expanded.

“That’s what’s so frustrating for me and for my colleagues involved in this is that we have the ability to mitigate this. And the uptake of the new bivalent vaccine is not nearly as high as we would like it to be.” Fauci added.

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