Do New Covid ‘Scrabble’ Variants Make Omicron Boosters Pointless? Here’s what experts say:


If you have received a new ommicron-specific Covid booster, you are best protected against the virus.

But there is a new set of so-called “Scrabble” variants circulating worldwide. While the BA.5 subvariant of omicron still accounts for nearly 40% of U.S. Covid cases, strains such as BQ.1, BQ.1.1 and BA.4.6 are increasing every week, according to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The new strains pose an awkward question: are the new bivalent boosters still worth it, or is the virus already outsmarting them?

“A booster is a booster,” says Dr. Roy Gulick, chief of the infectious disease division at Weill Cornell Medicine and New York-Presbyterian Hospital, told CNBC Make It. “What about all those new Scrabble variants? The message remains the same: get a boost, provoke your immune system to respond well to the virus.”

The emerging strains are new enough that no booster-shot protection data exists for them yet. But experts still expect the shots to boost your immunity to all Covid variants to some degree.

Here’s why and what else you need to know.

The Scrabble variants are descendants of omicron

The new variants are descendants of omicron, which is a promising first sign for the boosters.

“We have some hope, especially since this is all the same omicron. It’s just multiple subvariants,” said Dr. Rachael Lee, an associate professor in the infectious disease division at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “I hope that’s enough to protect us through the fall.”

While the Scrabble variants have found new ways to “break our immunity,” they probably can’t completely bypass vaccine-induced protection, says Dr. Deborah Fuller, a microbiologist at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

When you get vaccinated, your body generates an alphabet soup of different virus-fighting antibodies, she explains. Some antibodies eventually become more dominant than others and provide most of your body’s protection.

Those dominant antibodies become the target of new Covid mutations. But the ommicron-specific boosters — or any Covid booster for that matter — can help expand your “soup” and generate a greater concentration of antibodies, Fuller says.

That can “restore a level of immunity and close the gaps that some of these new Scrabble variants have found,” she explains.

No vaccine is ever 100% effective against infection. But ramping up other antibodies could help control the virus’s ability to replicate, shorten the duration of infections and protect against serious illness and hospitalization, Fuller says.

Previous boosters still seem to offer some protection

With no data on the efficiency of the new boosters against the Scrabble variants, some experts are looking at how the original monovalent Covid booster — which became available in November 2021 for US adults ages 18 and older — performed against then-emerging variants such as omicron.

“There are already studies showing that even the monovalent booster, whether it was Pfizer or Moderna, actually produces similar neutralizing antibodies against these variants.” [when compared to other variants]said Dr. Jose Vazquez, chief of infectious diseases at the Medical College of Georgia at Augusta University.

Recent data has shown that some antibodies, whether from vaccination or a previous infection, have lasted as long as a year and a half in some people — and more than 80% of the North American population has had a Covid vaccine or infection, says Vazquez.

“Luckily for us, all of these vaccines, including the original vaccine, will elicit some sort of neutralizing antibody response,” says Vazquez. “That will help us despite the fact that these are brand new variants that we have.”

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