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Coronavirus Update: As new omicron strains overtake BA.5 in the U.S., Biden administration’s public-health emergency may extend into spring

The BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 omicron sublineages jointly accounted for more coronavirus cases than the BA.5 omicron variant in the U.S. in the week through Nov. 12, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The two variants, which are offshoots of BA.5, accounted for 44.1% of all cases recorded in that week, while BA.5 accounted for 29.7%, the data show. In the New York region, which includes New Jersey, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 accounted for 59.9% of new cases, well ahead of BA.5, which accounted for 19.5% of new cases.

The World Health Organization has said that based on current data, BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 appear to be more infectious than previous variants but are no more likely to cause serious illness or death. That’s in line with how all new variants have behaved as they have replaced earlier strains. Experts continue to recommend keeping up to date with vaccines and boosters in order to prevent COVID complications.

There was good news on Monday from Moderna
which said both of its new COVID boosters produced a better antibody response against the BA.4 and BA.5 variants in a Phase 2/3 clinical than the company’s original booster.

Moderna has two bivalent boosters, one of which is authorized for use in the U.S. That shot, mRNA-1273.222, produced a “superior neutralizing antibody response” against BA.4 and BA.5 in about 500 clinical-trial participants who had already been vaccinated and boosted.

Moderna also said that its boosters have demonstrated neutralizing activity against BQ.1.1 in research assays from 40 participants “despite an approximately fivefold drop in titers compared to BA.4/BA.5.” 

The Biden administration gave no sign to state officials Friday that it is planning to end the COVID public-health emergency, meaning that designation will stay in place at least through January, the Wall Street Journal reported. 

The Department of Health and Human Services has told states they will be notified 60 days before the public-health emergency is lifted. The designation was renewed in October through Jan. 11, which means the public-health emergency may extend until the spring.

The news comes as known U.S. cases of COVID are climbing again for the first time in a few months. The daily average for new cases stood at 39,489 on Sunday, according to a New York Times tracker, up 7% versus two weeks ago.

Cases are rising in 33 states, led by Missouri, where they are up 200% from two weeks ago, followed by Utah, where they have climbed 77%.

The daily average for U.S. hospitalizations was up 2% to 27,943, but certain states are seeing sharper rises. In Colorado, hospitalizations are up 69% from two weeks ago, followed by Nevada, where they are up 55%; Arizona, where they have climbed 49%; and Hawaii, where they are up 42%.

On a brighter note, the daily average for U.S. deaths is down 10% to 317.

Coronavirus Update: MarketWatch’s daily roundup has been curating and reporting all the latest developments every weekday since the coronavirus pandemic began

Other COVID-19 news you should know about:

• In one district of China’s southern metropolis of Guangzhou, 1.8 million people were ordered to stay home for virus testing Saturday, and a major city in the country’s southwest closed schools as another rise in infections was reported, the Associated Press reported. Nationwide, a total of 11,773 infections were reported over the previous 24 hours, including 10,351 people with no symptoms. China’s numbers are low, but the past week’s increase is challenging the government’s “zero-COVID” strategy, whihc aims to isolate every infected person.

• Several Southern California hospitals have begun using overflow tents outside emergency rooms to cope with a rising number of patients with the flu and other respiratory illness, the AP reported separately. The San Diego-Union Tribune reported Friday that tents were put up at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas, Jacobs Medical Center at UC San Diego Health in La Jolla and Sharp Grossmont Hospital in La Mesa. This comes amid a rise in flu symptoms in emergency-room patients in San Diego County. About 9% of those patients had flu symptoms last week, up from 7% two weeks ago, according to a county report that also flagged a increase, albeit a lesser one, in patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

• Germany is headed toward a surge in COVID-19 cases this winter, Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said Friday as he criticized four German states’ plans to relax isolation rules for infected people, Reuters reported. “Then we would have an even stronger wave than we already fear, and we are on the eve of a more infectious variant,” he said. The regional administrations of Bavaria, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Hesse and Schleswig-Holstein did not have the federal government’s approval to relax those rules, Lauterbach added on the sidelines of a parliamentary sitting.

Here’s what the numbers say:

The global tally of confirmed cases of COVID-19 topped 635.3 million on Monday, while the death toll rose above 6.61 million, according to data aggregated by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S. leads the world with 97.9 million cases and 1,074,485 fatalities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s tracker shows that 227.8 million people living in the U.S., equal to 68.6% of the total population, are fully vaccinated, meaning they have had their primary shots.

So far, just 31.4 million Americans have had the updated COVID booster that targets the original virus and the omicron variants, equal to 10.1% of the overall population.

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