US health regulators on Friday estimated that BQ.1 and closely related BQ.1.1 accounted for 16.6% of coronavirus variants in the country, nearly doubling from last week, while Europe expects them to become the dominant variants in a month.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control said the variants are likely to drive up cases in the coming weeks to months in the European region.
The two variants are descendants of Omicron’s BA.5 subvariant, which is the dominant form of the coronavirus in the United States. Regulators in Europe and the US have recently authorized vaccine boosters that target it.
There is no evidence yet that BQ.1 is linked with increased severity compared with the circulating Omicron variants BA.4 and BA.5, European officials said, but warned it may evade some immune protection, citing laboratory studies in Asia.
“These variants (BQ.1 and BQ.1.1) can quite possibly lead to a very bad surge of illness this winter in the US as it’s already starting to happen in Europe and the UK,” said Gregory Poland, a virologist and vaccine researcher at Mayo Clinic.
In the US, weekly cases have been falling recently, according to data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The amount of coronavirus found in wastewater samples tested by Biobot Analytics has been basically flat around the United States over the last six weeks. Wastewater samples often predict possible spikes in COVID-19 ahead of the CDC data.
New variants are monitored closely by regulators and vaccine manufacturers in case they start to evade protection offered by current shots.
The World Health Organization this week said BQ.1.1 is circulating in at least 29 countries.
The US CDC said on Friday BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 last week were estimated to make up 9.4% of circulating variants.