New COVID-19 variant's spread draws concern from CDC

Sunday night, President Joe Biden declared an end to the COVID-19 pandemic, though he quickly added that “we still have a problem with COVID. We’re still doing a lot of work on it.”

It turns out that Biden’s lingering wariness was warranted as yet a new variant has emerged, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the last two weeks the BF.7 has doubled its incidence nationally from 0.8% to 1.7%.  The largest growth has been in the Northeast United States, Region 1, where the incidence is now over 3%.

“Scientists are taking notice of BF.7 because it’s making headway in an increasingly crowded field of Omicron subvariants,” Fortune reports. “For months they’ve watched BA.2.75—dubbed Centaurus by the Twitterverse—as a variant of interest with potential to surge this fall. But this week, BF.7 surpassed it.”

Kevin Kavanagh, M.D., the president and founder of the patient advocacy organization Health Watch USA, has been closely following the pandemic since it first emerged. “This variant is obviously outcompeting our current major variants, but it is too soon to say whether it will have a significant impact on the United States,” he told Fierce Healthcare. “Currently, regions of our country have different rates of vaccination and a different history of exposure to past variants. Thus, the impact seen in one region does not translate to another, and it is anyone’s guess if BF.7 rapid growth will continue.”

The CDC first reported BF.7 as a subvariant of BA.5. Now, though, because of its rapid growth, the agency placed it in its own category.

Stuart Ray, M.D., the vice chairperson of medicine and data integrity at Johns Hopkins Department of Medicine, notes that BF.7 has grown rapidly in some countries such as Belgium, Denmark, Germany and France. 

A graphic highlighting the growth of the BF.7 variant

Ray tells Fortune that “the same growth advantage in multiple countries makes it reasonable to think that BF.7 is gaining a foothold.” He tells the magazine that it's most likely more transmissible than BA.5, and subvariants “don’t grow relative to their parent unless they have an advantage.”

Talk of the new variant comes the day before the arrival of autumn in the U.S., and experience with past outbreaks of COVID-19 show that it’s most transmittable in the fall and winter. According to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center, 413 died from COVID in the U.S. yesterday and 60,454 new cases were reported.

Biden may have taken his cue from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, who heads the World Health Organization and last week said that the end of the pandemic was “in sight,” noting weekly deaths from the virus were at the lowest levels since March 2020.

“We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic,” Ghebreyesus said. “We are not there yet, but the end is in sight.” He added: “If we don’t take this opportunity now, we run the risk of more variants, more deaths, more disruption, and more uncertainty.”

Kavanagh says that the emergence of new COVID-19 variants “is continuing evidence that herd immunity is not possible. With the high mutation and infection rates of SARS-CoV-2 we will continue to see viral evolution designed to avoid both natural and vaccine immunity. As we adapt, so does the virus. We must keep our immunity as high as possible and do everything we can to avoid reinfections with the concomitant risk Long COVID that can occur even in the young with mild disease.”