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Omicron BQ variant dominant, XBB circling low

A person receives a coronavirus disease (COVID-19) test as the Omicron coronavirus variant continues to spread in Manhattan, New York City, US, on December 22, 2021.

Andrew Kelly | reuters

As people gather and travel for the Thanksgiving holiday, the Omicron BQ coronavirus subvariant has become dominant in the US, posing an increased risk to people with weakened immune systems.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are causing 57% of new infections in the US, according to data published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Omicron BA.5 subvariant, once dominant, now makes up only a fifth of new COVID cases.

According to the National Institutes of Health, BQ subvariants are more immune evasive and potentially resistant to antibody drugs, such as Evushheld and bebtelovimab, used by people with compromised immune systems. This includes patients undergoing organ transplant and cancer chemotherapy.

There is currently no replacement for these drugs. President Joe Biden, in an October speech, told people with compromised immune systems to consult their physicians and take extra precautions this winter.

“The new variants may render some existing protections ineffective. Sadly, this means you may be at a particular risk this winter,” Biden said.

The XBB subvariant is also currently circulating at low levels, causing about 3% of new infections. Dr. Anthony Fauci said at a White House briefing earlier this week that XBB is even more resistant than the BQ subvariants.

Fauci said the new boosters, which were designed against Omicron BA.5, may not be effective against infection and mild disease from XBB. But the shots should protect against serious disease, he said. He said Singapore saw an increase in XBB cases, but no major increase in hospitalisations.

Moderna and Pfizer said last week that their boosters induce an immune response against BQ.1.1, which is a descendant of the BA.5 subvariant.

Public health officials believe there is enough immunity from vaccination, boosting and infection to prevent the unprecedented COVID surge that occurred last winter, when Omicron first appeared, Fauci said at a press briefing this week. .


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