According to experts, the Omicron form of the virus that causes COVID-19 certainly acquired at least one of its mutations by picking up a fragment of genetic material from another virus present in the same infected cells – potentially one that causes the common cold.
This genomic sequence is not found in previous generations of the coronavirus, known as SARS-CoV-2, but it is found in many other viruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as in the human genome, according to 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 might be making itself look “more human,” which would help it evade attack by the human immune system.
This might indicate that the virus is more easily transmitted despite producing only moderate or subclinical illness. Scientists aren’t sure if Omicron is more contagious than other varieties, if it produces more severe illness, or if it will eventually supplant Delta as the most common version. Answers to these questions might take several weeks.
According to previous research, cells in the lungs and gastrointestinal system can concurrently contain SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses. Co-infection lays the stage for viral recombination, which occurs when two viruses in the same host cell interact while producing copies of themselves, resulting in new copies with genetic material from both “parents.”
The novel mutation might have initially appeared in a person infected with both infections when a variant of SARS-CoV-2 picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, according to Soundararajan and colleagues’ work, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.
According to Soundararajan, the identical genetic sequence may be found in one of the coronaviruses that causes colds in people, known as HCoV-229E, as well as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.
The world’s highest prevalence of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person’s vulnerability to infections with common cold viruses and other diseases, is found in South Africa, where Omicron was originally discovered. There are many people in that region of the world who may have been involved in the recombination that brought this common set of genes to Omicron, according to Soundararajan.
“We probably missed many generations of recombinations” that occurred over time and that led to the emergence of Omicron, Soundararajan added.
To validate the origins of Omicron’s mutations and their implications on function and transmissibility, more study is needed. There are different theories about whether the most recent variety evolved in an animal host.
Meanwhile, the latest findings, according to Soundararajan, emphasise the need of individuals acquiring the COVID-19 vaccinations that are already accessible.
“You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus,” Soundararajan said
(Adapted from The DailyStar.net)