Omicron Covid variant picked up a piece of the common cold virus
December 7, 2021: According to researchers, the omicron variant of the virus that causes Covid-19 is acquired at least one of its mutations by picking up a snippet of genetic material from one more virus, the common cold present in similar infected cells.
This genetic sequence does not appear in the versions of the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, but is ubiquitous in different viruses, including those that cause the common cold. Also, in the human genome, researchers added.
By inserting this snippet into itself, omicron might be making itself look “more human,” helping 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 on the website OSF Preprints.
This could mean the virus transmits more efficiently while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease. Scientists are unaware whether omicron is more infectious than other variants yet, whether it causes more severe illness or overtake Delta as the most prevalent variant. It may take a few weeks to get answers to these questions.
According to earlier studies, cells in the lungs and the gastrointestinal system can simultaneously harbor SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses. Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in that one host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new documents that have some genetic material from both “parents.”
This new 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picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
The same genetic sequence appears many times in one of the coronaviruses that cause colds in people, called HCV-229E – and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, Soundararajan said.
South Africa, where omicron was identified, has the world’s highest rate of HIV, weakening the immune system and increasing a person’s vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and other pathogens. In that part of the world, there are the people in whom the recombination that adds this ubiquitous set of genes to omicron might have occurred, Soundararajan said.
“We probably missed the generations of recombinations” that occurred over time, and that led to the emergence of omicron, Soundararajan added.
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