New Omicron subvariants are spreading quickly in some parts of the world and raising questions about how protected we are from them.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday, it estimated that Omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 accounted for about 35 per cent of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. in the week of Oct. 31, compared with 23.2 per cent the previous week.
The two variants are descendants of Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant and have been spreading rapidly in Europe too.
“In Europe, the United States and UK we are starting to see the BQ.1 variant spread,” said Dr. Dan Gregson, a Calgary-based infectious disease physician and associate professor at the University of Calgary Cumming School of Medicine.
The European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention has said the variants are likely to become the dominant variants by the start of the new year, stating the increase in the growth rate of BQ.1 is likely driven mainly by immune escape.
According to Gregson, it’s time that will tell if we will see more severe outcomes with the BQ variant spread.
“It’s hard to say (whether) that is going to translate into more hospitalizations or more deaths. (It) really depends on how effective our vaccines are against the new variants that are coming up and how prior infection is against the new variants,” he said.
Alberta Health Services confirmed Sunday that BQ1.1 has been seen in “small amounts” in Alberta and across Canada.
“There is no evidence that this lineage causes more severe disease than other Omicron lineages,” said Alberta Health’s Chris Bourdeau in a statement.
Public Health Ontario released a report at the end of October indicating the rapid growth rate of the BQ variant and raised concerns about the risk of increased transmissibility and lowered vaccine effectiveness.
Gregson says too little is known yet to predict how effective current bivalent vaccines will be. He said even if you’ve had a prior infection, vaccination is important because it reduces the risk of being hospitalized.
“If you want to make sure that your child is going to make it through the winter season with as much chance of not being off school or out of sports, you’re really going to want to get them vaccinated both for COVID and for influenza,” Gregson said.
Pediatrician Dr. Sam Wong said he’s disappointed there hasn’t been more publicity in Alberta about getting teens vaccinated for COVID since the bivalent vaccine became available in October for everyone 12 and up.
“I don’t know why they haven’t pushed it the way they should be pushing it,” Dr. Wong said. “I think they could do a better job of publicizing it and making it more well-known that this is an effective vaccine and people should get it.
“I think we as healthcare professionals could do more, but certainly as a government and public health could do way more. This vaccine is safe and effective against serious illness.”
Both Gregson and Wong said that masking is still a valuable tool in preventing the spread of viruses.
“Masking is a tool to reduce transmission and to take some burden off of parents, staying home with a sick child and the healthcare system having to take care of sick children,” Gregson said.
“We will see more viruses as the weather gets cooler and we spend more time inside with more people and we are not isolating or masking anymore,” Wong said.
According to AHS, the latest data shows that on average, 95 per cent of positive cases are Omicron BA.5 lineage; the remainder is a mix of Omicron BA.2 lineage and Omicron BA.4 lineage.
“There are several lineages that are being closely monitored for increased growth potential. Specifically, BQ.1.1 where increases have been seen in Europe and the United States, while XBB is on the rise in Singapore,” read a statement from AHS on Sunday.