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A new coronavirus variant has taken over, sparking concerns of a winter surge

Scientists expect a rise in infections but say the vaccines should still protect against severe disease

By BostonGlobe

A new subvariant has taken over as the predominant version of coronavirus circulating in Massachusetts, causing experts to worry about a potential rise of infections this winter, especially as people gather indoors for the holidays. But for most people who have been fully vaccinated, they say, it will likely pose more of a nuisance than serious health threat.

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard projected last Thursday that the virus, an offshoot of the Omicron family dubbed BQ.1.1, accounted for 39 percent of COVID-19 cases in the state. And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported on Friday that the variant and its predecessor, BQ.1, constituted nearly half of cases nationwide.

The spread of BQ.1.1 is of concern because multiple small studies published earlier this month suggest the variant is among the best yet at evading antibody immunity, the body’s first line of defense against infections. Even people who recently received new bivalent booster shots from Pfizer or Moderna — which were updated to match the formerly dominant BA.5 variant — have alarmingly low antibodies to protect against the new virus.

“We could see a lot of COVID in the winter,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. But he notes that people who got the new boosters had more antibodies to BQ.1.1 than those who only received the original boosters. “So it’s better than nothing.”

Researchers also caution that BQ.1.1 could pose a greater threat to immunocompromised people and those who develop severe infections. Throughout the pandemic, medicines made from synthetic antibodies helped prevent or treat infections in those with a high risk of developing severe disease. But as the virus evolved, fewer of these medicines remained effective.

As a result, the two remaining antibody medicines — bebtelovimab to treat COVID-19 and Evusheld to prevent it — aren’t expected to work against the new variant.

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