A rising Covid subvariant soon to become dominant across the US is significantly more resistant to the updated bivalent vaccines, according to a study.
The BQ.1.1 strain – a descendent of BA.5 and the original Omicron variant – already makes up a third of cases nationwide and is out-competing all other versions of the virus, suggesting it has an evolutionary edge.
Researchers from the University of Texas tested the new strain against Pfizer and Moderna’s new bivalent shots – designed to target the original Omicron – to ascertain if the new variant spreads so quickly because it can duck vaccines.
Results showed the number of antibodies – immune proteins that help fight viruses – produced in response to BQ.1.1 were four times lower than those that prevented the BA.5 strain.
These shots were also just approved Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration for babies and young children between the ages of six months and five years old.
Experts have repeatedly stressed that antibodies are just one small part of a complex immune response, and caution people not to read too much into the results of such studies.
The US is believed to have high immunity levels in the population after repeated Covid infection waves and previous vaccine rollouts.
But the results will come as a blow to Pfizer and Moderna, who hoped their updated shots would provide high levels of protection for all future Omicron strains going forward.
The rise of BQ.1.1 coincides with an uptick in Covid cases and hospitalizations in the aftermath of the Thanksgiving holiday.
An average of 54,369 Americans are testing positive for Covid each day, a 28 percent increase over the past two weeks.
Hospitalizations are increasing as well -the 36,433 per day figure is 29 percent higher than two weeks ago.
Despite these increases, the number of Americans dying from Covid is falling. The nation is averaging 287 daily deaths, a 10 percent drop in the last 14 days.
The BQ.1.1 strain may soon be America’s dominant strain of the virus. It is already the most prevalent variant circulating, making up 31.9 percent of cases.
It has rapidly grown, as it made up only 11 percent of active cases during the first week of November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
It was first detected in America in September, but the CDC did not report it as a separate strain until October.
The Texas study, published Tuesday in Nature Medicine, gathered data from 29 people who received the booster, and followed them for up to 94 days.
Each received either the Pfizer-BioNTech or the Moderna shots. Both are being used in the government’s booster rollout.
Blood samples were drawn from participants 14 to 32 days after getting the bivalent booster.
The shots were shown to produce antibody titers – the level of the virus fighting proteins in the blood – around 80 on average against the BA.5 variant.
However, against BQ.1.1, they only produced an antibody titer of 20.
Researchers found that the bivalent Covid booster was effective against the BA.5 variant (purple) but only had a fourth of the effective antibodies against the growing BQ.1.1 strain (white). The shot is also significantly more effective for people who have previously suffered a Covid infection (right)
The BQ.1.1 strain now makes up 31.9 percent of active Covid cases in America, making it the most prevalent strain. It is expected to soon take over as the nation’s dominant strain
Pfizer asks FDA to offer its unpopular bivalent Covid booster to babies
Pfizer is set to ask US regulators to authorize its bivalent Covid vaccine for children under five – not as a booster but part of their initial shot regimen.
Children aged six months through four years are already supposed to get three extra-small doses of the original Pfizer vaccine. If the Food and Drug Administration agrees, Pfizer’s bivalent omicron-targeting vaccine would be substituted for their third shot.
Few of the nation’s youngest children have gotten their Covid vaccinations since the shots were OK’d in June: Just two percent of those under two and about four percent of two-to-four-year-olds have had their primary doses so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Adults have not been eager to get the bivalent shot either. Only 40million have received the shot, which is tailored specifically to the Omicron variant. This accounts for 13 percent of the US population.
Pfizer’s request comes as Covid cases begin to rise once again in America. Officials in Los Angeles may even bring back its indoor mask mandate in the coming weeks.
The BA.5 variant was America’s dominant Covid strain in late summer and early fall, but has since dropped in prevalence since the CDC began to sequence BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 separately.
Texas researchers also found the bivalent boosters were significantly more effective in patients who had suffered a previous Covid infection, with a near four-fold increase in antibodies.
Pfizer and Moderna’s bivalent booster shots first became available in the US at the end of August, and their rollout has proved to be a disappointment.
So far, only 40million Americans have received the additional shot – or 13 percent of the eligible population.
It is the first vaccine shot explicitly tailored for the Omicron variant – as the original doses were designed for the Wuhan strain.
Lab studies initially found the bivalent shot could produce high antibody levels against Omicron, but real-world data has since suggested they are not as effective as once believed.
Antibody levels are not the only factor that determines a person’s protection from the virus, however.
The strength of a person’s immune system, their overall health and pre-existing conditions may play key roles as well.
The variant’s close relative BQ.1 makes up 30.9 percent of active cases. Combined, the pair make up over 60 percent of US infections.
BQ.1.1 is believed to be more infectious that its similar strain.
Both first emerged in the US in October. They have quickly risen in prevalence since, and have almost entirely snuffed out BA.5 – which makes up just 11 percent of active cases.
The US is averaging nearly 60,000 daily Covid infections each day, an increasing trend in recent weeks but still much lower than the Decembers of the previous two years
The US is averaging around 400 new Covid deaths each day, a figure that has ebbed and flowed in recent months
They have been described as the grandchildren of BA.5, as they have similar traits outside of a few key mutations.
Different variants periodically emerged during the first two years of the pandemic, with the dominant version shifting from the original Wuhan strain to the Delta variant in spring 2021, before Omicron emerged at the end of that year.
In the time since, Omicron has overwhelmed other strains. Experts do not believe another variant will overtake it.
Instead, they expect sub-variants of Omicron, like BQ.1.1 to emerge regularly.