| 21 May 2024, Tuesday |

Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus: Researchers

According to the researchers, the Omicron form of the virus that causes COVID-19 certainly acquired at least one of its mutations by taking up a fragment of genetic material from another virus – potentially one that causes the common cold – present in the same infected cells.

This genomic sequence does not present in any previous variants of the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, but is found in many other viruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as in the human genome, according to the researchers.

According to Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm nference, who led the study published on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints, by inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron may be making itself look “more human,” which would help it evade attack by the human immune system.

This might imply that the virus spreads more easily despite producing only moderate or subclinical sickness. Scientists aren’t sure if Omicron is more contagious than other variations, if it causes more severe illness, or if it will overtake Delta as the most common form. Answers to these questions may take many weeks.

According to previous research, cells in the lungs and the gastrointestinal tract may house both SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses at the same time. This type of co-infection lays the stage for viral recombination, a process in which two distinct viruses in the same host cell interact while producing copies of themselves, resulting in new copies that contain genetic material from both “parents.”

This novel mutation might have initially developed in a person infected with both diseases when a form of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, according to Soundararajan and colleagues in their work, which has been published in the journal Science.

According to Soundararajan, the identical genetic sequence exists multiple times in one of the coronaviruses that causes colds in humans, known as HCoV-229E, and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

South Africa, where Omicron was discovered, has the highest prevalence of HIV infection in the world, which weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections with common-cold viruses and other diseases. There are many people in that portion of the world where the recombination that brought this ubiquitous collection of genes to Omicron may have occurred, according to Soundararajan.

“We presumably missed several generations of recombinations” that happened throughout time and resulted in the formation of Omicron, according to Soundararajan.

More study is needed to determine the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their implications for transmissibility. There are opposing suggestions that the most recent variation spent time developing in an animal host.

Meanwhile, according to Soundararajan, the new findings highlight the need of individuals acquiring the COVID-19 vaccinations that are now accessible.

“You have to vaccinate to lessen the chances of other individuals who are immunocompromised coming into contact with the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Soundararajan explained.

  • Reuters