XBB, BA.5, BQ.1.1 & more: The ‘Scrabble’ COVID-19 variants taking over the world


Even as COVID-19 seems to be ebbing across the world, it is still breaking down into numerous strains. While BA.5 is still the dominant strain in the US, other omicron variants have also been reported.

“The ones that are particularly concerning are BQ.1 and another related one called BQ.1.1. Those are two that are expanding fairly rapidly in the United States,” Roy Gulick, chief of the division of infectious disease at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNBC.

However, it is the highly transmissible XBB variant that has become a major talking point. It was first reported in Singapore and is expected to become the next dominant strain of Covid-19 in Hong Kong and is yet to be reported in the US. Health experts are hopeful that the population’s level of hybrid immunity will not lead to severe illnesses. 

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These Omicron strains are also known as “Scrabble” variants, a term coined by Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children’s Hospital. The nickname refers to the alphabets B, Q and X that fetch a whole lot of points in the game.

In Hong Kong, 140 XBB infections have been reported since an overseas traveller became the first known carrier on October 10. However,  currently other strains, such as BA.4 or BA.5 are is circulation the most. They accounted for 95.1 per cent of local cases over the past two weeks, compared with less than 0.1 per cent involving XBB.

“XBB could be the next dominant strain in Hong Kong,” Professor Ivan Hung Fan-ngai, a top infectious disease expert at the University of Hong Kong, told SCMP.

“Nevertheless, XBB is a recombinant of BA 2.75 and 2.10.1. Most people in Hong Kong have been infected with Omicron BA.2 or BA.5 before, plus [they have] a very high vaccination rate. Therefore, [they have] very high hybrid immunity.”

There still isn’t much evidence to suggest that XBB is more virulent than the other strains. This when looked at in combination with the immunity factor leads experts to believe that it will not pose a major threat to the healthcare system in Hong Kong. 

“Therefore, it will not be a threat to the healthcare system in Hong Kong in the winter,” he said.


However, in Singapore, the strain led to a surge of 60,000 cases for the week ending October 17, up from about 41,000 logged the week before. The daily figure is expected to peak at about 15,000 by mid-November. XBB is now the predominant subvariant circulating in Singapore, accounting for 54 per cent of local cases in the week to October 9, up from 22 per cent the previous week. 

The strain has reached at least 17 countries, including Australia, Japan and Denmark. People have been advised to get their booster doses as the first winter after things have normalised approaches.

Experts say that XBB has been found to evade vaccine-derived protections in a research. However, vaccination can keep severe symptoms at bay. In fact, as it becomes colder outside, more variants are likely to emerge. 

unkindwhile, in India, people have been asked to practice caution after multiple variants were discovered in the country. 

“In view of reporting newer sub-variants of Omicron BQ.1 (variant in US) BA.2.3.20 apart from XBB, which is a recombinant of BA.2.75 and BJ.1 in Maharashtra and in the context of the ensuing festival season of Deepavali and Kannada Rajyothsava the following advisory is issued to General public,” the Commissionerate of Health and Family Welfare said.

“Those with fever, cough, cold, sore throat, breathing difficulty should compulsorily get tested immediately at the nearest hospital or health centres (preferably Rapid Antigen Test, if negative then RT-PCR, and get self-isolated till the results are received,” the department said.

(With inputs from agencies)


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