The continued evolution and emergence of novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) variants have resulted in challenges to vaccine and antibody efficacy. The emergence of each new variant necessitates the need to re-evaluate and refine animal models used for countermeasure testing. Here, we tested a recently circulating SARS-CoV-2 Omicron lineage variant, BQ.1.1, in multiple rodent models including K18-human ACE2 (hACE2) transgenic, C57BL/6J, and 129S2 mice, and Syrian golden hamsters. In contrast to a previously dominant BA.5.5 Omicron variant, inoculation of K18-hACE2 mice with BQ.1.1 resulted in substantial weight loss, a characteristic seen in pre-Omicron variants. BQ.1.1 also replicated to higher levels in the lungs of K18-hACE2 mice and caused greater lung pathology than the BA.5.5 variant. However, in C57BL/6J mice, 129S2 mice, and Syrian hamsters, BQ.1.1 did not cause increased respiratory tract infection or disease compared to animals administered BA.5.5. Moreover, the rates of direct contact or airborne transmission in hamsters were not significantly different after BQ.1.1 and BA.5.5 infections. Taken together, these data suggest that the BQ.1.1 Omicron variant has increased virulence in rodent species that express hACE2, possibly due to the acquisition of unique spike mutations relative to earlier Omicron variants. IMPORTANCE As severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) continues to evolve, there is a need to rapidly assess the efficacy of vaccines and antiviral therapeutics against newly emergent variants. To do so, the commonly used animal models must also be re-evaluated. Here, we determined the pathogenicity of the BQ.1.1 SARS-CoV-2 variant in multiple SARS-CoV-2 animal models including transgenic mice expressing human ACE2 (hACE2), two strains of conventional laboratory mice, and Syrian hamsters. While BQ.1.1 and BA.5.5 infection resulted in similar levels of viral burden and clinical disease in hamsters and the conventional strains of laboratory mice tested, increases in lung infection were detected in hACE2-expressing transgenic mice, which corresponded with greater levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines and lung pathology. Taken together, our data highlight important differences in two closely related Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant strains and provide a foundation for evaluating countermeasures.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)e0062823
JournalJournal of virology
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 28 2023


  • BA.5.5
  • BQ.1.1
  • SARS-CoV-2
  • coronavirus
  • pathogenesis
  • variants


Dive into the research topics of 'Characterization of the SARS-CoV-2 BA.5.5 and BQ.1.1 Omicron variants in mice and hamsters'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this