Guess what. Yet another new Covid-19 coronavirus subvariant has been spreading. This one’s called CH.1.1, and it’s a descendant of the BA.2.75, you know that lovely Omicron subvariant that I wrote about for Forbes in July 2022. The CH.1.1 has a mutation that was present in the Delta variant, you know that lovely variant that turned what some prematurely thought would be the Summer of Sex in 2021 into the Summer of Surge. Since CH.1.1 may not be the easiest name to say, some have been calling this the “Orthrus” subvariant, which is by no means an official name. Orthrus is the two-headed dog in Greek mythology who guarded Geryon’s cattle, as opposed to your everyday run-of-the-mill two-headed dog that you see near the local Starbucks. It’s not surprising that the CH.1.1 has emerged because mutate is something that the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) has proven that it can do. The big question is how “ruff” will this “Orthrus” subvariant be on everyone.
Currently, the CH.1.1 is in fifth place on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ongoing Covid-19 variant tracker chart in the U.S., not to be confused with the Billboard Hot 100. In the week ending February 4, the XBB.1.1.5 subvariant was still top dog, comprising 66.4% of all Covid-19 samples that were genetically sequenced over that time period. In second place was the BQ.1.1. still hounding people at 19.9%. The BQ.1 finished third at 7.3% while the XBB came in fourth at 2.2%. The CH.1. registered a 1.6%, half a percent higher than the sixth-place finisher BN.1.
Here’s a a dendrogram from the CDC showing how these different subvariants are related to each other:
As you can see, the BA.2.75 can say, “CH.1.1, I am your father.” It also say, “Oh my. they grow so fast.” Should this fifth place ranking then give you “paws,” so to speak?
Well, let’s look at what’s been going on internationally, you know that part of the world that some politicians in the U.S. have been telling you to ignore. Globally, the CH.1.1 is actually not that new, depending on how you define the word “new.” It’s certainly new in geological time. just like indoor plumbing, G-strings, and mochaccinos. But it’s not new in TikTok and Instagram time. July 8, 2022, was when the CH.1.1 was first detected in India. This subvariant has since spread to at least 67 different countries. The CH1.1. constitutes an estimated 10% of so of all the Covid-19 samples around the world, according Outbreak.info, a website that is maintained by four research teams at Scripps Research in San Diego, California, and has continued to assemble data on different variants and subvariants from around the world. This website also shows that CH.1.1 is currently most prevalent in New Zealand, where it represents around 34% of all samples, followed by Hong Kong (25%), Cambodia (23%), Ireland (19%), and the United Kingdom (11%). So CH.1.1 has been getting around for a while.
This suggests that the CH.1.1 does have some type of fitness advantage over the other earlier versions of the virus. This doesn’t mean that the CH.1.1 can do more push-ups than other SARS-CoV-2 variants and subvariants. The virus’s spikes are too small to do push-ups. It means that the CH.1.1 has some property or properties that can make it spread more readily and faster. It could be more transmissible or better able to evade existing immune protection or both.
There is a pre-print that is entitled “Extraordinary Evasion of Neutralizing Antibody Response by Omicron XBB.1.5, 3 CH.1.1 and CA.3.1 Variants” and has been uploaded to BioRxiv. Now, the word “extraordinary” usually should be reserved for a once-in-a-lifetime celestial phenomenon or a really good piece of avocado toast. And this study has not yet gone through scientific peer-review. So take everything from this pre-preprint with an extraordinary grain of salt.
Nonetheless, the pre-print describes laboratory experiments in which a research team from The Ohio State University tested how well antibodies generated by people vaccinated against Covid-19 were able to neutralize the Omicron XBB.1.5, 3 CH.1.1 and CA.3.1 variants. They found that the CH.1.1 and CA.3.1 variants were, in their words, “highly resistant to both monovalent and bivalent mRNA vaccinations,” based on these antibody neutralization experiments. Such a statement may be somewhat of a reach because antibodies are just one measure of immune protection generated by vaccines. So you shouldn’t assume that vaccines are useless against the CH.1.1.
What you should assume, though, is that being vaccinated or having been previously infected with the SARS-CoV-2 will not give you 100% protection. They’re not like being U.S. when it comes to civil litigation. You don’t have full immunity. You can still get infected with the SARS-CoV-2, suffer severe Covid-19, and pass the virus to others. It’s just that the chances of some of these things happening may be significantly lower when you’ve been vaccinated or previously exposed. That’s why it’s still important to maintain other Covid-19 precautions such as wearing face masks while indoors in public locations and maintaining good ventilation and air filtration.
So far, there is no real evidence that CH.1.1 is more likely to cause more severe Covid-19. There just hasn’t been enough time to do the proper studies to follow folks that have been infected by CH.1.1 and determine what’s happened with them. It takes time, effort, and money to keep doing proper science. It’s not like the Iron Man or Avengers movies where one dude can go into a lab and figure things out by himself within a few days.
While the Covid-19 pandemic is certainly not over, our society’s collective immune systems are at a different state than it was in previous years. At first in 2020 our immune systems were afraid, they were petrified. But with repeated vaccination and natural exposure to the virus people’s immune systems spent so many nights thinking how the SARS-CoV-2 could do them wrong And they grew strong And immune systems have learned how to get along. As a result, the introduction of a new variant these says may not have the same impact that it did in 2022 or 2021.
That being said, one can never predict for sure what something like the CH.1.1 may do until more data is available just like it is difficult to forecast what will happen with the stock market, the crypto market, the real estate market, or celebrity marriages. So for now, the best thing to do is take the Covid-19 precautions that you reasonably can and keep ahead of any Covid-19 updates that emerge or in the case of the “Orthrus” subvariant keep two heads. And be patient. This pandemic won’t last fur-ever.