What is the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
Since the early onset of the pandemic, the continuous mutations of the SARS-CoV-2 have posed significant challenges to the world. Just as we are wondering if the pandemic might be over soon, the emergence and rapid spread of yet another Omicron subvariant caused major concern. Indeed, the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant is already gaining dominance among other variants in several countries around the world despite its recent emergence. Read along to learn more about the latest Omicron subvariant, its current prevalence, symptoms, characteristics, and how to best protect yourself.
What do we know about the mutational profile of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
Early studies indicate that BQ.1 is a subvariant of BA.5, with several descendants including BQ.1.1, BQ.1.2, BQ.1.3 and BQ.1.4.2. Alongside BQ.1, its descendant BQ.1.1 is also reported around the world in increasing prevalence. The Omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. subvariants contain the mutations K444T, L452R, N460K, and F486V within their spike (S) proteins. In addition to these mutations, however, the BQ.1.1 subvariant also contains the mutation R346T.
How common is the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
According to data by GISAID, the first sequences of the Omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants were reported from Nigeria in mid-July 2022. Soon after its initial detection in Nigeria, the subvariants have quickly spread around the world and have so far been detected in 37 countries in total. As of November 1, Luxembourg (112), France (181), Germany (186), Denmark (172), Austria (200), Belgium (117), the United Kingdom (550), and the United States (722) are reported as the most heavily affected countries with the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant.
What are the symptoms of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
So far, there is no evidence to suggest that infections with the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant present with any unique signs or symptoms. While further data is needed to conclude for certain, it is expected that the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant will cause symptoms that are commonly observed with the other subvariants of the Omicron lineage. These symptoms may include congestion, sore throat, cough, fatigue, and runny nose.
How concerned should we be about the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
Much still needs to be uncovered about the exact impact of the mutational profile of the new subvariant on its transmissibility, severity, and immune evasion. However, the rapid doubling rate of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant and its potentially enhanced ability to elude immunity has alarmed experts around the world. Indeed, the subvariant and its descendant BQ.1.1 have already grown to constitute a significant share of the total cases in some countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany. Accordingly, estimations by GISAID so far suggest that the Omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 subvariants may have significant relative growth advantage.
Moreover, prior analyses based on broad mutational scanning have suggested that some of the mutations located in the spike (S) protein of BQ.1 may be associated with antibody evasion. One pre-print study by Cao et al. (2022) also reported that the BQ.1.1 subvariant was more likely to evade neutralizing antibodies from vaccination and Omicron infections relative to Omicron BA.5. Together, these early findings and estimations suggest that Omicron BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 may be more likely to cause reinfections.
As mentioned above, no unique symptoms have so far been reported for infections with the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant and its descendants. With regards to the assessment of their pathogenicity, there are currently no reports documenting the severity of disease caused by the Omicron BQ.1 or Omicron BQ.1.1 subvariants. However, it is expected that the severity of symptoms caused by infections with either of these subvariants will be similar to that observed with other versions of the Omicron strain.
How can you protect yourself against the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
Despite early estimations supporting the enhanced ability of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant to evade immunity, experts are highlighting that vaccination is still our most potent strategy against SARS-CoV-2. Regardless of the variant in question, keeping up to date with vaccines and boosters is strongly recommended to ensure the highest possible level of protection against severe disease. Alongside the vaccines and boosters in use, scientists are also working on developing a second generation of COVID-19 vaccines containing multiple strains of SARS-CoV-2, engineered proteins, self-amplifying RNA, and protein nanoparticles to improve and prolong the immunity acquired through vaccination against the emerging variants of SARS-CoV-2. Bivalent vaccines containing both the original strain and the Omicron strain are already in use in several countries around the world. With regards to the efficacy of therapeutics, on the other hand, experts are concerned that the mutations of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant may evade monoclonal antibody treatments such as Evusheld, which is used in the treatment of immunocompromised individuals.
How accurate are the current test kits in the detection of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant?
Due to the recent emergence of the subvariant, there are no studies evaluating the performance of diagnostic tests in the detection of Omicron BQ.1. However, there is currently no evidence to suggest that the mutation profile of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant could have significant impact on the performance of the diagnostic tests in use. Therefore, the levels of sensitivity, specificity, and the overall accuracy offered by molecular testing and antigen-based testing in the detection of the Omicron BQ.1 subvariant are expected to be comparable to that observed with other strains of the Omicron strain.
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Jian, F., Wang, J., Yu, Y., Song, W., Yisimayi, A., Wang, J., An, R., Chen, X., Zhang, N., Wang, Y., Wang, P., Zhao, L., Sun, H., Yu, L., Yang, S., Niu, X., Xiao, T., Gu, Q., Shao, F., . . . Xie, X. S. (2022). Imprinted SARS-CoV-2 humoral immunity induces convergent Omicron RBD evolution. BioRxiv. https://doi.org/10.1101/2022.09.15.507787