Why Omicron subvariants BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 are poised to take over in the U.S.

They now account for a tenth of the nation’s COVID-19 cases. Here’s why these strains are so good at evading immunity—and how the vaccines will protect against them.

As the United States braces for another wave of COVID-19, a surge in new Omicron subvariants has raised concern among scientists. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released data last week showing that BQ.1 and its sibling BQ.1.1 now account for more than 10 percent of the country’s cases, while BF.7 accounts for another 5 percent.

“Within a few weeks, things could look upside down,” says John Swartzberg, an infectious disease and vaccinology expert at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. If the subvariants continue to spread at the same quick rate, either one or all three of them could overtake BA.5 as the nation’s most prevalent SARS-CoV-2 strain. (Globally, the horse race also includes worrisome contenders such as the Omicron subvariant XBB.)

What exactly are these variants and how are they different from those we’ve seen before? Here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

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