Pune: India on Monday detected its first case of Omicron‘s BQ.1 subvariant in a patient sample from Pune. BQ.1 is a descendant of Omicron’s BA.5, currently the dominant version of SARS-CoV-2 in the United States.
BQ.1’s detection in the Pune sample comes just after BF.7 – another Omicron subvariant first reported in China – was picked up in Gujarat. Scientists said both BQ.1 and BF.7 pack mutations that could make them considerably good at being contagious and immune evasion.
BA.5 and its sublineages currently account for less than 5% of Covid-19 infections in India. Omicron’s other subvariant, BA.2, and its sublineages (mainly BA.2.75) continue to maintain the lead here – triggering over 80% of India’s current Covid caseload.
BQ.1 variants have already started getting ahead of rival strains in some countries, including England, Germany and the United States. According to the US CDC, the BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 infections were currently 11% of the country’s caseload. Less than a month ago, the pair were in just 1% of cases.
In India, scientists said the BQ.1 detection in the Pune sample happened during the latest genome sequencing run in October. “This is the first reported case of BQ.1 in India,” a senior scientist involved in the country’s genome surveillance network confirmed.
A scientist from the National Institute of Virology (NIV) said: “These are all next-generation strains or offspring of the Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2. Since Omicron’s emergence in January this year, we have not seen a completely new variant of the virus. However, these subvariants, called sublineages, also have the potential to cause surges, so they should not be ignored. That said, the BA.2.75 sublineage of Omicron’s BA.2 variant continues to dominate the scene in India.”
For better monitoring, some experts recommended India further improve its sewage surveillance systems. “Close genomic surveillance to assess evolution of new Omicron sublineages need to be pursued, both from patient samples (outpatients and inpatients) and wastewater,” said Dr Sanjay Pujari, a member of India’s national Covid task force.
He added, “BQ.1’s offspring BQ.1.1 is considered to be the most immune-evasive lineage to date. The L452R mutation both BQ.1 and BQ.1.1 share with Delta has in some preliminary studies in mice shown to have increased fusogenicity [virus-cell fusion] that is associated with increased pathogenicity and severity.” These factors call for improved community surveillance, he said.
“We need closer monitoring of the evolution of this sublineage and its impact on severity and hospitalisations. Also, booster top-ups need to be carried out at least among the elderly and at-risk groups. It is being investigated if vaccines using the ancestral strain and previous infections still protect against Omicron’s BA.1.1,” Dr Pujari said.