The share of BQ.1.1 has quadrupled in just one month. This is reported by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) in its current weekly report. This is behind the variant also called “Hellhound”.

As predicted by experts, the number of corona cases with BQ.1.1 in Germany is increasing noticeably. According to the new RKI, the proportion of the Omicron subline, also known as the “hell dog” variant, is more than eight percent, “which corresponds to a quadrupling of the proportion in the last four weeks,” according to the current weekly report. Accordingly, the three predominant variants are currently the omicron sublineages

In fact, the proportion of BQ.1.1 is likely to be significantly higher. Because the RKI data refer to the week before last. The data from Moritz Gerstung’s Corona tool is more up-to-date. The professor from the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg researches the evolution of tumor cells and is dedicated to Sars-CoV-2 in a side project. According to his calculations, the share of BQ.1.1 in Germany is currently 19.6 percent. Tendency clearly rising.

BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are descendants of BA.5 – the omicron variant, which has been responsible for the majority of infections in this country for months. According to models from the European disease control agency ECDC, both are likely to cause more than 80 percent of cases at the beginning of 2023.

Which alarms experts

Early evidence suggests that these pathogens may evade the immune response of vaccinated and/or recovered people better than their predecessors. “BQ.1.1 has five new mutations that are associated with antibody escape,” explained virologist Friedemann Weber when asked by FOCUS online. This means that the variant can partially escape the immune system. It has the potential to dominate the winter wave.

A look at the neighboring countries could give the first indications: According to Gerstung’s calculations, BQ.1.1 already accounts for 65 percent in France and more than 31 percent in Denmark.

The good news about BQ.1.1

So far, according to experts, there are no signs that the “hound of hell” is part of the program. An increased disease burden has not been observed so far. A look at France or Denmark also supports this assessment.

The reason: “Even if BQ.1.1 has a certain immune escape, it can never completely escape immunity,” explained Carsten Watzl, Secretary General of the German Society for Immunology of the German Press Agency a few weeks ago. In addition to antibodies, the immune system also has T cells, which are important for protection against serious illness. According to Watzl, the various omicron sublines still look to them largely like the original virus.

Watzl said that anyone who was vaccinated with the original corona vaccines or had an infection with variants before Omikron was even less protected from infection with BQ.1.1 than from infection with BA.5. Most antibodies would no longer bind to the BQ.1.1 spike protein.

In people with one of the new adapted boosters or omicron breakthrough infection – ideally BA.5 – the immunologist expects a “certain protection”. Even if the names sound different: BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 descend from descendants of BA.5. “But it was agreed that there shouldn’t be more than three numbers after the letter. Therefore, the letter was changed from BA to BQ,” explained Watzl.

New Corona variants are named according to the rules of the Pango nomenclature, which was set up in 2020 to track them. Based on two variants (A and B), their sub-variants are designated with numbers. However, so that these designations do not become too confusing, a letter is used after the third number instead of the fourth, in this case “Q”. The alternative name for BQ.1.1 would otherwise be the following: B.1.1.529.

The unofficial variant name of BQ.1.1 is Cerberus, the hellhound in Greek mythology. Others of the numerous omicron sublineages also have such nicknames: like Gryphon or Mimas. It is not easy to keep track of the swarm of sub-lines. Watzl suggested finding official and simpler names as BA.1, BA.2, BA.5 or BQ.1.1 for the variants that become predominant. But: “Hellhound is certainly not a suitable name.”

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