Winter COVID-19 surge will be less severe than last year, experts predict

In the coming months, the U.S. will likely see an increase in COVID-19 cases that is less severe than last winter's omicron surge, experts told Scientific American in a Nov. 1 report.

Health experts are closely monitoring three subvariants that are quickly spreading worldwide: BQ.1, BQ.1.1 (which has one more mutation than BQ.1) and XBB. Based on projections for the week ending Oct. 29, the CDC estimates that BQ.1 accounts for 14 percent of U.S. COVID-19 cases, while BQ.1.1 accounts for 13.1 percent. The CDC does not track XBB, which has spurred a major COVID-19 wave in Southeast Asia. The subvariant has already been detected in the U.S. but is not widely circulating.

The three new strains can evade immunity from vaccines and past infection and may also be able to side-step monoclonal antibody treatments. However, experts expect current vaccines and Paxlovid to remain effective against the subvarints. 

Based on these characteristics, the strains "have the ability to create a wave, but it's not going to be a tsunami," Katelyn Jetelina, PhD, an epidemiologist at UTHealth Houston, told Scientific American.

Assuming a completely new variant doesn't emerge, this winter's COVID-19 wave will likely mirror the BA.5 surge seen this summer, according to Trevor Bedford, PhD, a virologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle. Dr. Bedford predicts one of two scenarios will play out over the coming months: BQ.1.1 will outpace and suppress XBB, or the two will spur two concurrent waves.

Depending on the situation, the U.S. could see 100,000 to 200,000 COVID-19 cases per day, according to Dr. Bedford. As of Oct. 26, the nation's seven-day case average was 37,683, a 25.1 percent decrease from the previous week's average, CDC data shows.


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