Omicron BA.5 declines as emerging variants gain traction: CDC data

The United States is facing at least seven different versions of Covid-19 omicron as the country heads into winter as health officials expect another wave of virus infections.

Although the omicron BA.5 variant remains dominant in the country, it is beginning to lose ground to other versions of the virus, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released Friday.

Omicron BA.5 split into several new but related variants, including BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and BF.7. The UK Health Safety Agency, in a report released earlier this month, said these three variants demonstrated a growth advantage over BA.5, which was the most contagious version to date.

In the United States, omicron BA.5 accounts for about 68% of all new infections, up from about 80% in early October. BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and BF.7 now cause about 17% of new infections combined, according to CDC data.

About 3% of new infections are attributable to BA.2.75. and BA.2.75.2, which are related to the omicron BA.2 variant which caused a bump in cases in the spring but was pushed back.

Scientists from Peking University in China found that omicron BA.2.75.2 and BQ.1.1 were the most adept at evading immunity from previous BA.5 infection and several antibodies. The study, published earlier in October, has not been peer reviewed.

Dr Ashish Jha, the White House’s Covid response coordinator, said earlier this week that US health officials are watching these variants closely because they are good at evading previous immunity.

“The reason we follow them is that they either have a much more invasive immune power or they make a lot of our treatments ineffective,” Jha said. “Those are the two main things that have our attention.”

But Jha said the new omicron boosters the United States began rolling out last month should offer better protection than first-generation vaccines against these emerging variants. Boosters target BA.5 and emerging variants are all omicron and most descend from BA.5.

Jha called on all eligible Americans to get the new boosters by Halloween so they have full Thanksgiving protection when family holiday gatherings are in full swing.

But the Peking University scientists said immune evasion of variants such as BA.2.75.2 and BQ.1.1 could mean that BA.5 booster shots will not provide broad enough protection.

It’s unclear how much more effective boosters will be in the real world. The Food and Drug Administration cleared the injections without direct human data, relying instead on clinical trials from a similar injection that was developed against the original version of omicron, BA.1.

Pfizer and BioNTech Thursday released the first human data from their BA.5 shots. They triggered a significant immune system boost against omicron BA.5 in a laboratory study involving blood samples from adults aged 18 and older, the companies said.

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