What is BQ1.1.? An emerging and worrisome COVID-19 variant to keep an eye on

A microscopic view of a new COVID-19 bacteria. (Stock Image)
While the contagion levels of new subvariants give pause for concern, an even more worrisome aspect is BQ.1.1's resistance to our natural antibodies and certain antibody therapies. (Stock Image)

As Canadians are urged to receive their COVID-19 and influenza vaccines, many wonder when the pandemic will end.

As the colder weather sets in, COVID-19 cases are rising in hospitals around the country. However, as COVID-19 continues to splinter, a new variant is on the horizon that deserves acknowledgment: the BQ.1.1 variant.

A detailed look at the COVID-19 BQ.1.1 variant

Different COVID-19 variants have reigned supreme at various points during the pandemic. In the early-to-mid summer, the contagious BA.5 COVID-19 subvariant rolled over Canada and other parts of the world. Now, just a few months after BA.5 subsided, epidemiologists in the United Kingdom are warning of the BQ1.1 subvariant as the next version to watch.

How is BQ.1.1 different from previous variants?

In the U.S., BQ.1.1 infections are doubling each week. So far, this rate of spread is double the speed of other leading subvariants. For example, the new BQ.1.1 spreads twice as fast as BA.2.75.2.

BQ.1.1 is a subvariant of the Omicron variant BA.5. The recently updated booster shots should help protect against the subvariant.

BQ.1.1 is highly contagious

Some COVID-19 variants are more contagious than others. Currently, the most contagious COVID-19 variant is the strain named BA.5.

BQ.1.1 is spreading across North America along with other contagious Omicron variants. Currently, the subvariants BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 are responsible for over 11 per cent of new infections in the U.S., while B.A.5 comprises 70 per cent.

BQ.1.1 is resistant to certain antibody therapies

While the contagion levels of new subvariants give pause for concern, an even more worrisome aspect is BQ.1.1's resistance to our natural antibodies and certain antibody therapies. Experts noted earlier in the year that certain BA.5 subvariants could elude the antibodies people have built up via previous infections and vaccinations.

Reports show that BQ.1.1 may be the first subvariant to completely resist antibody therapies, like Evusheld and Bebtelovimab.

What is our vaccine efficacy with BQ.1.1?

Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives a COVID-19 booster, followed by a flu vaccine, at a pharmacy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada November 9, 2022. REUTERS/Blair Gable
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau receives a COVID-19 booster, followed by a flu vaccine, at a pharmacy in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada November 9, 2022. REUTERS/Blair Gable

Vaccine efficacy refers to how effective vaccines are at protecting the vaccinated population. It is still too early to definitively state vaccine efficacy against BQ.1.1. However, it is earning a reputation as one of the most immune-evasive COVID-19 variants to arise.

Without sufficient antibodies and vaccine solutions, the fight against COVID-19's constantly mutating subvariants would turn grim. Luckily, the newest "bivalent" messenger-RNA boosters are still proving effective against the virus.

What are the symptoms of BQ.1.1?

Currently, the symptoms to watch out for are the same symptoms connected to other Omicron-related subvariants. Omicron subvariants can have a shorter incubation time and quicker onset of symptoms than other COVID-19 variants. The worst symptom is feeling like your throat is on fire.

The most common symptoms associated with BQ.1.1 and other Omicron subvariants include:

  • Congestion

  • Coughing

  • Runny nose

  • Fatigue

What to do if you contract BQ.1.1

If you believe you may have contracted the new B.Q.1.1 subvariant or any variety of COVID-19, take a rapid test and isolate for five days. As we head into the colder months, seasonal allergies, influenza, and the common cold will also become more common. Many of these share symptoms with subvariant BQ.1.1, and keeping a COVID-19 home testing kit on hand can help you differentiate between COVID-19 and other seasonal illness.

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