Oct 18, 2022 - Health

Slate of COVID variants could drive winter surge

Registered nurse Paolo Salvallon wears his face mask as he checks in on a patient at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois, Friday, April 22, 2022

Registered nurse Paolo Salvallon wears his face mask as he checks in on a patient at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Illinois on April 22. Photo: Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Multiple versions of the Omicron variant are emerging around the world, raising concerns that a potential next COVID-19 wave could be driven by a host of viruses, rather than just one single one.

The big picture: Experts are monitoring BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which is about 11% of the viruses sampled in the U.S., per data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

  • BA.4.6 and BF.7 are also gaining traction in the U.S., accounting for about 12.2% and 5.3% of sampled viruses respectively, per the data.
  • XBB, another mutated version of Omicron, may be best suited to evade immunity, including a breakthrough BA.5 infection, the Washington Post reports.
  • "These lineages are going to have a greater ability to reinfect people than what is currently circulating … which is very likely to drive or contribute to infection waves over the winter," Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, told the Post in an email.

Between the lines: New Omicron variants appear to be more suited to evade immune defenses as they evolve, Axios' Caitlin Owens reported in June.

  • But it's still likely that the current protections against COVID will guard against the worst outcomes, specifically a surge in hospitalizations.
  • "A strain can have a growth advantage compared to the other strains, but still not enough of an advantage to lead to a resurgent epidemic," Justin Lessler, a professor of epidemiology at the University of North Carolina's Gillings School of Public Health, told the Post.

What they're saying: COVID-19 response coordinator Ashish Jha said earlier this month that the White House is monitoring "the rise of several subvariants."

  • NIAID director Anthony Fauci also warned last week about the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 variants, which he called "pretty troublesome" due to their rate of increase.
  • "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," Fauci told CBS News.
  • "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.

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