New omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 could lead COVID winter surge, expert says

"BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 seem to be more transmissible than its parent BA.5," Dr. Peter Chin-Hong said.

ByAnser Hassan via KGO logo
Tuesday, October 18, 2022
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Winter is coming, and so too is the threat of yet another COVID-19 surge, this one lead by a new omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Winter is coming, and so too is the threat of yet another COVID-19 surge, this one lead by a new omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1.

"Whenever I hear about a new variant, I ask myself three questions: 1. It is more transmissible? 2. Is it immune invasive, meaning that vaccines and monoclonal antibodies may not work quite as well? 3. Does is cause more serious disease?" explains Dr. Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease specialist at UCSF.

Chin-Hong believes, as of now, experts probably only know the answer to the first question about the new variants, which is, "BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 seem to be more transmissible than its parent BA.5," he says.

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But he adds, being more transmissible shouldn't be a cause for concern.

Two and half years into the COVID pandemic, there is better understanding of the disease. And more protection for those who are up-to-date on their vaccinations.

He expects, if there is a winter surge, it won't be like years past.

"Even if it is easier to catch, we are not seeing a high level of hospitalization that we saw in the delta days, or even in the early omicron days, because at this point, we are more experienced immunologically," he says.

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He does recommend getting the new bivalent booster for three groups: those over age 65, those who are immunocompromised and those who are pregnant.

"So for those three groups, they should run out and get it," says Dr. Chin-Hong. "But nevertheless, if you've gotten three shots already, you are probably going to be well protected from serious disease for many, many months, even if you don't get this booster."

On Monday, Governor Gavin Newsom announced he is ending the COVID-19 state of emergency in California, which takes effect in February of 2023. That allows time for the public healthcare system to get though any possible winter surge.

RELATED: California's official state of emergency for COVID to end in February, Newsom says

In a statement, Newsom says, "With the operational preparedness that we've built up and the measures that we'll continue to employ moving forward, California is ready to phase out this tool."

Republican lawmakers have repeated urged Governor Newsom to end the state of emergency, saying that other states have already done so, and some calling an abuse of his executive powers.

Newsom is asking lawmakers to pass two parts of his emergency policies into law before the state of emergency ends. The first would allow nurses to prescribe COVID treatments. The second would allow lab workers to continue processing COVID tests.

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"To say that you're going to definitely end something before knowing what the winter looks like, makes me a just little bit nervous," says Dr. Chin-Hong.

One of his concerns is for communities of color, which were disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

For example, federal and state emergency safety measures provided for those who were uninsured. He says there has been a shift in funding from testing to focus on vaccinations and early therapy. But without testing, many won't qualify for those therapies.

"There is still a lot of work that needs to be done. And there is still a big divide between outcomes in communities of color and then general population," say Chin-Hong.

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