Two new COVID-19 variants that quietly emerged on the scene over the last few weeks -- ones that Dr. Anthony Fauci has described as "pretty troublesome" -- are becoming increasingly prevalent in the Boston area and stoking fresh concerns as the nation braces for yet another potential winter surge, the latest CDC data shows.
You may not have heard of these two subvariants before -- BQ.1 and BQ.1.1. Both are descendants of omicron, which has proven to be the most vaccine-elusive and infectious COVID variant to date, and both are spreading at rapid rates.
According to the CDC, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 each account for 5.7% of U.S. COVID cases, about 11.4% of the total. They barely registered on the CDC dashboard to start the month, accounting for 1.8% and 1% of cases, respectively.
In New England, the numbers are a bit lower, with BQ.1.1 accounting for 4% of cases and BQ.1 3.1% for a total of 7.1%. That's far lower than in the New York region, where the two variants account for almost 20% of total cases. Throughout the pandemic, COVID numbers in New York have often provided an early look at what Massachusetts and the other southern New England states have in store.
Get Boston local news, weather forecasts, lifestyle and entertainment stories to your inbox. Sign up for NBC Boston’s newsletters.
Across New England, COVID cases have started to creep up in recent weeks. Massachusetts health officials reported 7,865 new COVID-19 cases and 60 new deaths in last week's report. The state's seven-day average positivity was listed at 8.60% Thursday, compared to 7.76% last week.
The CDC's COVID risk level has also been streadily rising across southern New England of late, with all of Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island now included in the medium risk category.
We asked Boston doctors for their thoughts on the new variants, and how worried people should be, during NBC10 Boston's weekly series, "COVID Q&A."
"In terms of this particular variant, the BQ.1.1, there's actually limited information that we actually have," said Dr. Sabrina Assoumou of Boston Medical Center. "What we do know is it seems to have what we call a growth advantage, meaning it is quickly making up a higher proportion of the cases from COVID-19. It's been sort of identified in Europe, especially in Germany where it seems to have caused a super spreader event related to Oktoberfest. So in terms of its growth advantage, it's a little bit clearer because it is more transmissible, but the one data point that we do know is that it appears to be evading immunity... meaning that our vaccines may not work as well as they had with prior variants. So the point that I would like to make is that it is even more important right now that we are up to date with our vaccines because we do know that our vaccines, especially when you get boosted, provide a higher level of protection. And so with these new variants that are coming out, it's even more important to be up to date."
But Assoumou said she hasn't seen any data yet to suggest that the new variant will cause more severe disease.
"Only time will tell," she said. "My big message is, unfortunately, we're seeing more variants, and the virus is actually figuring out better ways to evade our protection, but we're not hopeless and it's not a helpless situation. We have vaccines, they actually work, but the key thing is that you have to be up to date... So please get get up to date so that we are all prepared in the community before a potential winter surge."
"I think it's likely that we'll continue to see the proportion of cases that are being caused by the new variants increase because they do seem to be able to evade immunity," Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women's Hospital said. "But for the general public. I think the issue is going to be that, first of all, receiving a booster vaccine, as Dr. Assoumou said, will strengthen immunity because even if this variant can get around the antibodies and may get people infected and give them a cold, they're not going to have anything much worse than an upper respiratory infection if they've been recently boosted because there does seem to be much broader cross protection across all of these variants for severe disease and that's a really important point. So people shouldn't focus on 'Why should I get boosted because I might still get infected and still come down with symptoms?' The important point is you should get boosted to make sure that you have this broad cross protection that's going to prevent you from becoming seriously ill. And that's really what we want to do at this stage is not have people get hospitalized not have people die of COVID-19 because that's easily prevented."
Dr. Gabriela Andujar Vazquez of Tufts Medical Center largely agreed with her colleagues' take.
"I do want to echo a lot of the comments made by my colleagues," she said. "You know, I think that one thing that we know that variants are going to keep happening. We've talked about this before where we know that the variants have the ability to change. We're fortunate that we're able to identify them rather quickly now and we do studies, researchers do studies to make sure that therapeutic vaccines and therapeutics are tested against. It's likely that this variant will probably become more prevalent during the winter season, and we'll keep an eye on how it behaves clinically."
"I think that the one thing that the public needs to know and should do in preparation for the winter season is vaccinating and then making sure that you continue to follow those recommendations that we've been talking about right? Hand hygiene, wearing a mask if you're in a crowded place, if you're traveling because we know that people are going to travel during the winter season because of the holidays, consider wearing a mask during those travels and think about the vulnerable population around you, family and friends and whether visiting family members is a good idea. And again and again, the bivalent booster, making sure that you're up to date on that because it will definitely protect not only you but also everyone that you love."