By Natalie Williams • 04 December 2021 • 23:07
Sex and the City 2
The Omicron mutation of the virus that causes Covid-19 may have picked up a piece of common cold virus according to researchers.
“This genetic sequence found in the Omicron mutation does not appear in any earlier versions of the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, but is ubiquitous in many other viruses including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome”, researchers said.
“By inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron might be making itself look ‘more human’, which would help it evade attack by the human immune system”, said Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm reference, who led the study posted on Thursday 2 December on the website OSF Preprints.
This could be the answer as to why the Omicron mutation is so virulent. Even though, at the moment, it is only presenting as mild symptoms or asymptomatic. Scientists are investigating this new strain of the Coronavirus and results won’t be reliable for another good few weeks or more.
“Cells in the lungs and the gastrointestinal system can harbour SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies. Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new copies that have some genetic material from both ‘parents. “This new Omicron mutation could have first occurred in a person infected with both pathogens when a version of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus,” Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study. The Omicron variant study is yet to be verified by Soundararajan’s peers. He also claims that “the same genetic sequence appears many times in one of the coronaviruses that cause colds in people – known as HCoV-229E – and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS”.
“South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, has the world’s highest rate of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and other pathogens. In that part of the world, there are many people in whom the recombination that added this ubiquitous set of genes to Omicron might have occurred”. Soundararajan said.
“We probably missed many generations of recombinations that occurred over time and that led to the emergence of Omicron”, Soundararajan added.
More research is needed to confirm the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their effects on function and transmissibility. There are competing hypotheses that the latest variant might have spent some time evolving in an animal host.
In the meantime, Soundararajan said, the new findings underscore the importance of people getting the currently available Covid-19 vaccines.
“You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Soundararajan said.
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