The “Omicron Olympics”: What We Know About the New Variants

Although the United States has seen a relative decrease in cases and hospitalizations lately, a new global dominance of Omicron lineage is expected to lead a winter wave of transmissibility in the coming months. While the BA.5 subvariant accounts for 60% of new COVID-19 cases in North America, that number has been decreasing progressively, making way for the growing collection of new independent Omicron variants.

Unlike in the past, where one strain would dominate internationally, Omicron seems to be spreading its variants around the globe, showing a different alphabetical prominence depending on where you are. Multiple independent strains, with similar mutations, are rising in different countries continuously.

The New Sub Variants

Omicron has been notably concerning to scientists since its inception, as it has mutated far beyond the others, with over 50 mutations and over 300 descendants around the world so far. Most of these rising sub variants are descendants of BA.5 and BA.2, and are now more transmissible and immune evasive.

To provide some background, BA.1, the original Omicron subvariant strain, was first found in Botswana and South Africa when it outcompeted the Delta strain in late November 2021, soon after finding its way across the globe. By the end of 2021, over a million cases of Omicron BA.1 were reported in the US. At the end of August 2022, after its mutations, Omicron BA.5 made up more than 88% of coronavirus cases in the United States, and has now decreased to about 62%.

At the moment in the United states, however, BA.5 is still considerably high on the rates of infection, although BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BA.4.6, and BF.7 are hot on its heels, making up 16%, 11% and 5.3% of current COVID-19 cases. In the UK, Omicron BA.5.2 has the highest prevalence levels, while cases of XBB are dominating in Singapore.

What is Up With Their Names?

These technical alphanumeric-based strain names have become increasingly convoluted and overwhelming, and yet global public health authorities are yet to come up with a simpler system to identify them. Some scientists have begun to nickname some of the strains with unique identifiers, sometimes taking inspiration from Greek mythology, but the monikers are yet to become commonplace. Some of these include the nickname ‘Gryphon’ for the XBB strain, BA.4.6 dubbed ‘Aeterna’, and BQ.1.1 named ‘Cerberus’.

Similar Mutations

The interesting thing about Omicron BQ.1, BQ.1.1, BA.4.6, and BF.7 is that they demonstrate “convergent evolution”, meaning they share very similar mutations, all in the same R346T spike protein. The spike protein is on the outer layer of the virus, whose job is to bind to receptors on the target cell it wants to infect. This is what gives the virus its infamous crown shape. The spike protein is what our immune system recognizes and responds to, in order to develop antibodies to fight against a virus. That is why mutations in the spike protein are dangerous, as they continue to transform the pathogen and make it less recognizable to the antibodies we build after vaccination and/or prior infection, increasing the risk of infection.

Resistance to Antibody Treatments

While the strains have proven to have greater immune evasion, the actual concern scientists are struggling with is the new subvariants’ resistance to existing monoclonal antibody drugs. XBB and BQ.1.1 have shown defiance against Bebtelovimab, an antibody treatment given by IV to those at high risk. XBB and BQ.1.1 have also, alongside BA.2.75.2, BA.4.6, and BF.7, shown resistance to Evoshield, which the Food and Drug Administration warns is one of the more critical treatments for those who are immunocompromised. The FDA expressed concern that without Evoshield, it would be difficult to bolster protection through pre-exposure therapy, and impossible to neutralize some subvariants.

Do Current Vaccines Work?

The pattern in conferring mutations mentioned above unfortunately offers the virus an evolutionary advantage, making it easier to spread through multiple layers of protection including vaccinations and a previous infection.

The good news is, while there may be a certain drop in vaccine effectiveness, taking your vaccine shots will still hold up against severe illness or death from contracting COVID-19. Of course, this could depend on different factors, including how up-to-date one is about their vaccinations and the prevalence of updated booster shots in their location.

There are new bivalent booster shots that are being offered in the US, which scientists reformulated to target BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, which some say will be even more effective against the new strains, given that most of them emerged from BA.4 and BA.5 anyway. However, research is still in its early stages, and there isn’t much data regarding the actual effectiveness.

Influenza and Omicron Mirroring 

One theory, one that’s been thrown around by some researchers since the beginning of the pandemic, states that the evolution of COVID-19 could take on a similar form to influenza or mild flu. Omicron has shown a pattern of global splitting into a multitude of sub variants, which mimics the cycle that happens each year with the flu, except crammed into the span of a few months.

Often flu season will begin with new strains covered by the influenza vaccine, but by the end of the season new strains of the virus mutate, which is precisely why scientists develop updated vaccines and encourage you to renew your flu shots each year.

Some think that this means, like the flu, the likelihood of a COVID infection will increase during the winter, and variants range in effectiveness over the years. There’s a possibility that eventually, a single annual shot will be created just like the flu vaccine to target the virus.

What Are Their Symptoms?

Thankfully, as far as omicron symptoms go, the new sub variants generally share symptoms with the older strains, although some research suggests that they may be more severe. This includes a high temperature or shivering, shortness of breath, continuous cough, loss or change to smell or taste senses, muscle pain, headaches, sore throat, runny or blocked nose, loss of appetite and finally, diarrhea.

What's in Store in the Future?

Unfortunately, since research is in its early stages and we do not have enough data, scientists are unsure where the future of our journey with COVID-19 could lead. While the theory of it turning into a flu-like situation may be reassuring, there is a possibility that the new variants will continue to spawn exponentially, making it more difficult for vaccine and treatment research to keep up.

It is also unclear whether one of these new sub variants will eventually outcompete the others, or if all these strains and different combinations will independently control different areas in the world. It’s also impossible to tell whether all the future variants will be descended from Omicron, or whether a new strain could appear and suddenly dominate, a variant called ‘Pi’ that just shows up like Omicron did last year.

The rate at which a new Omicron sub variant is splitting into potentially enhanced versions is unsettling, and makes the future a lot more difficult to predict. However, we can rest assured that not much data has spawned proving higher severity rates upon contracting the coronavirus, and no scientists have been ringing the alarm about a potential looming disaster worse than the one that ensued when all of this first started.

The truth is though, experts have clarified that while there are many explanations for why these rapid mutations of the virus happened, the most critical one is the global desertion of COVID-19 prevention measures and waning population immunity. With the wearing of masks, lockdowns and social distancing rules completely lifted, the only defense one can depend on is their own commitment to their safety and immunity provided from vaccines. However, even if you’ve gotten your vaccines, your antibody immunity decreases after six months, so it is highly advised that you do not neglect your booster shots.

Otherwise, if you are worried about your own safety, it is of utmost importance to continue to follow COVID-19 prevention measures that we are all familiar with at this point: wear a mask, keep your distance, and wash your hands vigorously.

How WellBefore Can Help Protect You

Filtrating airborne nanoparticles is the most critical method of reducing transmission of the coronavirus, but it should be noted that many studies show that N95 respirators and KN95 masks are superior to cloth or other face masks. As the CDC states in their study, “Although consistent use of any face mask or respirator indoors was protective, the adjusted odds of infection were lowest among persons who reported typically wearing an N95/KN95 respirator.”

WellBefore offers an excellent range of choices for KN95 and N95 respirators on our website, as well as at home COVID-19 test kits. At-home COVID-19 tests are a quick way to find out if you’ve been infected, which reduces the transmissibility rates of the virus.