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Cases still low but new COVID strains spreading, with ominous echoes of past winters

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The past 2 winters brought major COVID peaks, and now, as the mercury falls, new Omicron-descended variants are on the rise and already account for 17% of Israel’s recorded cases

Nathan Jeffay

With ominous echoes of past winters, as the mercury is dropping, new COVID variants are spreading.

It’s just under a year since a world that was finally shedding its masks was shaken by the emergence of the Omicron variant. Within a few weeks of its November 24, 2021, documentation at the World Health Organization, it was infecting larger numbers than any previous strain.

A year earlier, winter in much of the northern hemisphere was dominated by the massive spread of the Alpha variant, then widely known as the UK variant. In Israel, this meant the third nationwide lockdown.

Today, descendants of the original Omicron are spreading fast. In many Asian countries a lineage called XBB is making major inroads.

In Europe, North America, Africa and Israel the BQ.1 family is on the rise. It accounts for about a third of cases in America. In Israel, it accounts for 17 percent of reported cases, according to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, a top epidemiologist and a government coronavirus adviser.

“We expect it to start spreading quickly, and this should raise our concerns and prompt us to vaccinate and take precautions,” he told The Times of Israel.

He said that experts are still waiting to understand vital facts about the BQ.1 variants, such as exactly how fast they spread, how well they dodge immunity and how severely they cause illness. But he said that weeks ago the government and top doctors were already discussing scenarios for possible winter variants.

With ominous echoes of past winters, as the mercury is dropping, new COVID variants are spreading.

It’s just under a year since a world that was finally shedding its masks was shaken by the emergence of the Omicron variant. Within a few weeks of its November 24, 2021, documentation at the World Health Organization, it was infecting larger numbers than any previous strain.

A year earlier, winter in much of the northern hemisphere was dominated by the massive spread of the Alpha variant, then widely known as the UK variant. In Israel, this meant the third nationwide lockdown.

Today, descendants of the original Omicron are spreading fast. In many Asian countries a lineage called XBB is making major inroads.

In Europe, North America, Africa and Israel the BQ.1 family is on the rise. It accounts for about a third of cases in America. In Israel, it accounts for 17 percent of reported cases, according to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, a top epidemiologist and a government coronavirus adviser.

“We expect it to start spreading quickly, and this should raise our concerns and prompt us to vaccinate and take precautions,” he told The Times of Israel.

He said that experts are still waiting to understand vital facts about the BQ.1 variants, such as exactly how fast they spread, how well they dodge immunity and how severely they cause illness. But he said that weeks ago the government and top doctors were already discussing scenarios for possible winter variants.

“One scenario we looked at involves lots of COVID, but in a variant like Omicron that often isn’t severe. Another scenario involves a new variant that is more severe than Omicron, like Delta was.”

With ominous echoes of past winters, as the mercury is dropping, new COVID variants are spreading.

It’s just under a year since a world that was finally shedding its masks was shaken by the emergence of the Omicron variant. Within a few weeks of its November 24, 2021, documentation at the World Health Organization, it was infecting larger numbers than any previous strain.

A year earlier, winter in much of the northern hemisphere was dominated by the massive spread of the Alpha variant, then widely known as the UK variant. In Israel, this meant the third nationwide lockdown.

Today, descendants of the original Omicron are spreading fast. In many Asian countries a lineage called XBB is making major inroads.

In Europe, North America, Africa and Israel the BQ.1 family is on the rise. It accounts for about a third of cases in America. In Israel, it accounts for 17 percent of reported cases, according to Prof. Nadav Davidovitch, a top epidemiologist and a government coronavirus adviser.

“We expect it to start spreading quickly, and this should raise our concerns and prompt us to vaccinate and take precautions,” he told The Times of Israel.

He said that experts are still waiting to understand vital facts about the BQ.1 variants, such as exactly how fast they spread, how well they dodge immunity and how severely they cause illness. But he said that weeks ago the government and top doctors were already discussing scenarios for possible winter variants.

There isn’t yet peer-reviewed research on either of the big questions regarding these variants, but there are some early insights. The University of Basel computational biologist Cornelius Roemer tweeted that based on his analysis, the the BQ.1 sub-lineage BQ.1.1 spreads fast, and suggested “it is becoming quite clear that BQ.1.1 will drive a variant wave in Europe and North America before the end of November.”

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control wrote that BQ.1 appears to have strong ability to slip past the immune system and indicated that it expects sub-lineages to do the same. “The observed increase in the growth rate of BQ.1 is probably driven mainly by immune escape,” the organization stated. “This variant and its sub-lineages will probably contribute to a further increase in cases of COVID-19 in the European Union/European Economic Area in the coming weeks and months.”

Reassuringly, the World Health Organization reports regarding BQ.1 that “at this time there is no epidemiological data to suggest an increase in disease severity.”

Davidovitch stressed that even if more is quickly learned about the BQ.1 family, there is still plenty of time for other variants to arise for the winter, meaning it would still be hard to make predictions. For now, people should focus on the variables they can control, he said.

The expert recommended that high-risk individuals should wear masks on public transportation and in public places, and he recommended that anyone who believes they have reason to test should do so.

He also reiterated that “vaccines, of course, are very important.”

nhs.uk/conditions/coronavir...

coronavirus.data.gov.uk/

bbc.com/news/uk-51768274

nhs.uk/conditions/coronavir...

timesofisrael.com/cases-sti...