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New COVID Variants Are Escaping the Immune System. Here’s What That Means.

By: Maddie Bender

BA.5, BQ.1.1, and XBB? It’s no wonder people are struggling to keep all the circulating variants of COVID-19 straight right now. Whether you want to call them “alphabet soup,” “Scrabble,” or “Kraken,” we’ve been reminded time and again that it’s not the name of the subvariant that matters, but rather the way it interacts with our immune systems. And as we enter into our fourth year with COVID-19, scientists are most concerned with how well prior infections, vaccinations, and boosters can protect us against emerging variants of the virus.

The answers are starting to roll in—and they’re not looking great for us. In a letter published on Jan. 18 in The New England Journal of Medicine, researchers from Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory detail the nasty abilities of variants BQ.1.1 and XBB.1 to escape incapacitation from COVID-specific antibodies. This is cause for concern because as the authors wrote, these variants “may reduce the efficacy of current mRNA vaccines.”

Before Aug. 31 in the U.S., available COVID-19 boosters were monovalent, meaning they contained viral genetic material from one strain of the virus. The updated boosters are bivalent and were created with genetic material from the original COVID-19 strain as well as Omicron variant strains with the hope of offering better protection against new and emerging variants.

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