January 8, 2022

Omicron variant may have caught a piece of cold virus

People line up at a pop-up COVID-19 testing site in New York City, United States, December 3, 2021. REUTERS / Jeenah Moon

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NEW YORK, Dec. 3 (Reuters) – The Omicron variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 likely acquired at least one of its mutations by collecting an extract of genetic material from another virus – possibly the one that causes the common cold – present in the same infected cells, according to the researchers.

This genetic sequence does not appear in any earlier version of the coronavirus, called SARS-CoV-2, but is ubiquitous in many other viruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as in the human genome, the researchers said.

By inserting this particular snippet into itself, Omicron could pose as “more human,” which would help it evade attacks by the human immune system, said Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Mass., Data analytics company. nference, who led the study published Thursday on the OSF Preprints site.

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This could mean that the virus spreads more easily, while causing only mild or asymptomatic illness. Scientists do not yet know if Omicron is more infectious than other variants, if it causes more severe disease, or if it will overtake Delta as the more prevalent variant. It may take several weeks for these questions to be answered.

According to previous studies, cells in the lungs and gastrointestinal system can simultaneously harbor SARS-CoV-2 and cold coronaviruses. Such co-infection sets the stage for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while reproducing, generating new copies that contain genetic material from both “parents”.

This new mutation could have occurred for the first time in someone infected with both pathogens when one version of SARS-CoV-2 retrieved the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.

The same genetic sequence appears multiple times in one of the coronaviruses that causes the common cold in humans – known as HCoV-229E – and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, said Soundararajan.

South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, has the highest rate of HIV in the world, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with cold and disease viruses. ‘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 could have occurred, Soundararajan said.

“We have probably missed many generations of recombinations” that have occurred over time that led to the emergence of Omicron, added Soundararajan.

More research is needed to confirm the origins of Omicron mutations and their effects on function and transmissibility. There are competing hypotheses that the latter variant might have spent some time evolving in an animal host.

In the meantime, Soundararajan said, the new findings underscore the importance for people of receiving currently available COVID-19 vaccines.

“You need to vaccinate to reduce the chances of other immunocompromised people encountering the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Soundararajan said.

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Reporting by Nancy Lapid; Editing by Will Dunham

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.


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