An emerging Covid subvariant that will soon become dominant in the US is significantly weakening updated bivalent vaccines, according to a study.
The BQ.1.1 strain – a descendant of BA.5 and the original Omicron variant – already accounts for a third of cases nationwide and outnumbers all other versions of the virus, suggesting it has an evolutionary advantage.
Researchers at the University of Texas tested the new strain against the new bivalent injections from Pfizer and Moderna – designed to target the original Omicron – to see if the new variety spreads so quickly because it can evade vaccines.
They did this by drawing blood from Americans who received those vaccines and exposing them to the virus in a laboratory.
The results showed that the number of antibodies – immune proteins that help fight viruses – produced in response to BQ.1.1 was four times lower than the number that prevented the BA.5 strain.
These injections were also approved Thursday by the Food and Drug Administration for young children between six months and five years old.
Experts have repeatedly emphasized that antibodies are only a small part of a complex immune response and warn people not to read too much into the results of such studies.
America is believed to have high levels of immunity in the population after repeated waves of Covid infection and previous vaccine rollouts.
But the results will come as a blow to Pfizer and Moderna, who hoped their updated shots would provide a high level of protection for all future Omicron strains going forward.
The emergence of BQ.1.1 coincides with an increase in Covid cases and hospitalizations due to the Thanksgiving holiday.
On average, 54,369 Americans register Covid infections each day, up 28 percent over the past two weeks.
The number of hospital admissions is also increasing: 36,433 per day is 29 percent higher than two weeks ago.
Despite these increases, the number of Americans dying from Covid is falling. The country has an average of 287 daily deaths, down 10 percent in the past 14 days.
The BQ.1.1 strain may soon become the dominant strain in the Americas. It is already the most common variant of the circulating virus, accounting for 31.9 percent of cases.
It has grown rapidly, as it made up just 11 percent of active cases in the first week of November, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The variant was first discovered in America in September, but the CDC didn’t report it as a separate strain until October.
The Texas study, published Tuesday in Naturopathycollected 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 used within the government’s booster rollout.
Blood samples were taken from participants 14 to 32 days after receiving the bivalent booster.
The injections were found to produce antibody titers – the level of the virus-fighting proteins in the blood – averaging around 80 against the BA.5 variant.
While only an antibody titer of 20 was produced against BQ.1.1.
Researchers found that the bivalent Covid booster was effective against the BA.5 variant (purple), but had only one-fourth of the effective antibodies against the growing BQ.1.1 strain (white). The jab is also significantly more effective for people who have previously contracted 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 common strain. It is expected to soon become the dominant species in the country
Pfizer asks FDA to offer its unpopular bivalent Covid booster to babies
Pfizer will ask US regulators to approve its bivalent Covid vaccine for children under the age of five – not as a booster, but as part of their first vaccination schedule.
Children six months to four years old should already receive three extra small doses of the original Pfizer vaccine. If the Food and Drug Administration agrees, Pfizer’s bivalent micron-targeted vaccine would be replaced by their third shot.
Few of the country’s youngest children have received their Covid vaccinations since June’s shots were in order: Only two percent of children under two and about four percent of two- to four-year-olds have received their primary doses so far had, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Adults were also not eager to get the bivalent injection. Only 40 million have received the injection, which is specifically tailored for the Omicron variant. This accounts for 13 percent of the US population.
Pfizer’s request comes as Covid cases begin to pick up again in America. Los Angeles officials may even bring back the 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 declined in prevalence since the CDC began sequencing BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 separately.
Researchers from Texas also found that the bivalent boosters were significantly more effective in patients who had previously contracted a Covid infection
There was an almost 4-fold increase in antibodies in patients who had previously suffered from infection.
Pfizer and Moderna’s bivalent booster shots first became available in the US in late August, and their rollout proved to be a disappointment.
To date, only 40 million Americans have received the extra shot — or 13 percent of the eligible population.
It is the first vaccine explicitly tailored for the Omicron variant – as the original doses were designed for the Wuhan strain.
Lab studies initially found that the bivalent injection could produce high antibody levels against Omicron, but real-world data has since suggested they are not as effective as once believed.
However, antibody levels are not the only factor that determines a person’s protection against the virus.
The strength of a person’s immune system, their overall health, and pre-existing conditions they may have also play a key role.
The variant’s closest relative, BQ.1, accounts for 30.9 percent of active cases. Combined, the pair make up more than 60 percent of U.S. infections.
BQ.1.1 is believed to be more contagious than its similar strain.
These species first appeared in the US in October. They have since risen rapidly in prevalence and have almost completely eradicated BA.5 – accounting for 11 percent of active cases.
The US is averaging nearly 60,000 Covid infections per day, an increasing trend in recent weeks, but still much lower than in December of the previous two years
The US averages about 400 new Covid deaths per day, a figure that has ebbed in recent months.
Both have been described as a grandchild of BA.5, having similar properties except for a few key mutations.
During the first two years of the pandemic, several variants appeared periodically, with the dominant species shifting from the original Wuhan strain to the Delta variant in spring 2021 before the emergence of the Omicron variant at the end of that year.
Since then, Omicron has overwhelmed other species. Experts do not believe that another variant will overtake it.
Instead, they expect sub-variants of Omicron, such as BQ.1.1, to appear regularly.