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International News: New COVID-19 subvariants may cause more severe disease in coming months, but new vaccines still work against them

Posted: Monday, October 31, 2022. 10:21 am CST.

Photo Credit: Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Getty

By Aaron Humes: Citing new studies and data, the Daily Beast claims the world could be in for a resurgence of serious disease due to COVID-19, including more hospitalizations and deaths.

However, the big difference between now and 2020 and 2021, it reports, is easier access to safe and effective vaccines. And the vaccines still work, even against the new subvariants.

A new study from The Ohio State University is the first red flag. A team led by Shan-Lu Liu, co-director of HSU’s Viruses and Emerging Pathogens Program, modeled new SARS-CoV-2 subvariants including BQ.1 and its close cousin, BQ.1.1. These new subvariants, mostly of offspring of the BA.4 and BA.5 forms of the Omicron variant, are highly contagious and unrecognizable to antibodies produced by monoclonal therapies, rendering those therapies useless against them.

The Ohio State study, which appeared online on October 20 and is still under peer review at the New England Journal of Medicine, found “observed increased cell-cell fusion in several new Omicron subvariants compared to their respective parental subvariants…”

If confirmed this would reduce the trend of successive major variants and subvariants to be more contagious but cause less severe disease, which along with widespread vaccination and new therapies lead to “decoupling of infections and deaths” – spikes in COVID cases caused by new variants and subvariants are less severe in disease impact and death.

It would put an end, experts say, to the journey back to “the new normal” the world has undergone in the past year or so. In Singapore there was a quick surge in cases that some experts initially worried might involve a dangerous new subvariant, but it turned out to be the BA.5 subvariant and was quickly tamped down. Germany, meanwhile, is tackling a surge of cases possibly linked to BQ.1 and has seen more average deaths per day in the worst week of the current surge in October than in July during a summer surge, which may be replicated in Europe and the United States.

The good news is that for all their transmissibility and fusogenicity (ability to fuse to human cells), the new subvariants haven’t significantly escaped the immune effects of the leading vaccines. And the latest “bivalent” boosters, formulated specifically for BA.4 and BA.5, should maintain the vaccines’ effectiveness as long as the dominant subvariants are closely related to Omicron.

So, get vaccinated and stay current on your boosters. It’s impossible to stress this too much. BQ.1 and its cousins may exhibit some alarming qualities that could bend the arc of the pandemic back toward widespread death and disruption – but only if you’re unvaccinated or way behind on your boosters.


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