Jha: Bivalent boosters still effective as 'escape variants' gain traction

The White House's COVID-19 response coordinator is optimistic bivalent boosters will offer protection against omicron "escape variants" BQ.1 and BQ.1.1, which now account for nearly 30 percent of U.S. infections. 

The latest CDC estimates indicate BQ.1 accounts for 14 percent of cases, while BQ.1.1 accounts for 13.1 percent. Last week, the pair accounted for 16.6 percent of cases. In an Oct. 28 tweet referencing the variants, Eric Topol, MD, founder and director of Scripps Research Translational Institute in San Diego, said they are "on a path to be dominant" in the weeks ahead. 

White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Ashish Jha, MD, told CBS News he expects the bivalent omicron boosters to offer some level of protection against the new strains, since they are BA.5 relatives, and updated boosters were tailored to target BA.4 and BA.5. 

"The one I am paying most close attention to in the United States is BQ.1.1, which is a BA.5 derivative, and based on all of the things that we understand about immunology, your protection against BQ.1.1 is going to be significantly better after a BA.5 bivalent [booster]," Dr. Jha said. 

Small early studies have suggested the updated omicron booster doesn't offer better protection against BA.5 than the original shots. Dr. Jha said "well-controlled trials" with "larger samples" could eventually show more promising results. Moderna has said its omicron booster "elicits broad cross-neutralization against omicron variants," and a Pfizer spokesperson told Becker's people who are vaccinated and boosted are better protected against severe disease.

Experts contend the updated shots still offer protection, especially against severe disease, though perhaps not to a substantially higher degree than the original formula. Regardless, "A booster is a booster until proven otherwise and we are in great need of getting more of them in the U.S.," Dr. Topol told CNN

The bivalent vaccines can also easily be modified again to target other omicron subvariants, but Dr. Jha told CBS it's unlikely the U.S. will need another updated COVID-19 booster soon. 

Read more about BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 here

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