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Understanding the COVID-19 ‘Scrabble' Variants

Even as COVID-19 mutates, vaccines still offer protection against severe disease

November 08, 2022

A new set of COVID-19 variants are competing to become the next dominant strain.

As we head into the winter months, public health officials are closely monitoring the rise of a few more Omicron subvariants that appear to be gaining ground on BA.5 in the U.S. These include BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, and BA 4.6.

Even with arrival of new Omicron subvariants, the COVID-19 vaccines remain the best option to prevent severe disease, public health officials have noted.

“While we are looking at a vast genetic diversity of Omicron sublineages, they currently display similar clinical outcomes, but with differences in immune escape potential,” the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a recent statement. “The potential impact of these variants is strongly influenced by the regional immune landscape.”

Here are five things to know:

  • About the ‘scrabble’ variants:  Last year, the WHO began to identify new COVID-19 variants using the Greek alphabet to remove the stigma around where these variants are first identified. Some public health leaders have deemed the latest versions of the virus (BQ.1.1, BQ.1, XBB) as 'scrabble' variants because they do not differ enough from Omicron to merit their own Greek letter.
  • Variant proportion:  After a long stint as the dominant variant, BA.5 (39.2%) has been losing ground in recent weeks to BQ.1.1 (18.8%), BQ.1 (16.5%), BA.4.6 (9.5%), and BF.7 (9%). BQ.1.1 and BQ.1 are descendants of BA.5.
  • Case counts: The nation is averaging about 273,000 weekly cases, which is significantly below year-ago levels.
  • Why it matters:  Public health leaders monitor the development of new variants to measure how well our immunitythrough infection or COVID-19 vaccinationwill protect us from infection and severe disease.
  • What you can do:  Just 26 million (8.4%) people in the U.S. over age 5 have received the updated COVID-19 booster dose. Staying up to date with your vaccination ensures you have protection against COVID-19 and its variants heading into the winter months.

HAP encourages everyone to stay up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations and follow the proper public health precautions to reduce the spread of the virus. Learn more about how you can protect yourself and others this winter.

The latest about COVID-19 variants is available online.