New COVID variant BQ.1 now makes up 1 in 10 cases nationwide, CDC estimates

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In just over a month since a new COVID variant known as BQ.1 was first named, that strain and a descendant called BQ.1.1 have already grown to make up more than 10% of new infections across the United States.

According to updated estimates published Friday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it comes as federal health authorities have been bracing for a widely-expected resurgence of COVID-19 this fall and winter.

BQ.1 variants have already outpaced many rival strains in European nations from England to Germany, which have already seen renewed waves begin.

The CDC had previously bundled BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 with their shared parent BA.5  in the agency’s weekly “Nowcast” estimates. BQ.1 was first named by scientists in early September, based on sequences spotted across the U.S. and several other countries.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 each currently make up 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 fast-growing subset of the Omicron variant, BA.5 remains the dominant lineage in the United States,” CDC spokesperson Kristen Nordlund said in a statement.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 also appear on track to overtake the only other strain that still outnumbers them: BA.4.6, which currently makes up 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 “were circulating at less than 1% in the empiric data.”

Out of all regions, the New York and New Jersey area has the largest proportion of BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 infections. Around 20% of infections there are already from BQ.1 or BQ.1.1, the CDC estimates.

News of the new variants’ growth comes as COVID-19 metrics are still largely improving nationwide.

Only around 1% of Americans live in counties seeing “high” COVID-19 Community Levels, where the CDC urges indoor masking and other steps to curb the virus. Less than half of counties are seeing community transmission bad enough to warrant requiring universal masking in hospitals and nursing homes, under recent federal guidance.

But data from Health and Human Services Region 2, which spans New York and New Jersey, has also tracked a recent uptick 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 prematurely. And that’s the reason why we’ve got to keep our eye out on these emerging variants,” Fauci said.

Fauci also echoed worries that the variant’s mutations might evade medications like Evusheld, which is a key antibody drug used to help protect immunocompromised Americans from the virus.

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




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