Omicron, the newest type of coronavirus, is also the fastest to be described as a “variant of concern” by the World Health Organization (WHO) due to its apparently rapid spread in South Africa and its many disturbing mutations.
The first sample of the omicron strain, or B.1.1.529, was taken on November 9, according to the World Health Organization. It was discovered due to an increase in cases in South Africa.
“This new alternative… seems to be spreading really fast!” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the South African Center for Epidemic Response and Innovation and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.
In addition, genetic sequencing showed that he had a large number of worrying mutations in the spike protein, a knob-shaped structure on the surface of the virus that it uses to attach to cells it infects.
Some of these mutations have already been identified in other variants that have been known to make them more dangerous, including one called E484K which can make the virus less recognizable by certain antibodies, and immune system proteins that are the first line of defense against infection. The basis of monoclonal antibody therapies.
It also carried a mutation called N501Y, which gave the alpha and gamma variants the highest transmissibility. Last week, Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical School and colleagues reported in the journal Nature that this particular mutation makes the virus replicate better in the upper respiratory tract — that is, in the nose and throat, and that it is more likely to spread when people breathe, sneeze or cough.
Like Delta, omicron also contains a mutation called D614G, which appears to help the virus stick to better on the cells it infects.
“The number of mutations in and of itself does not mean that the new variant will cause any problems; although it may make it look more different for the immune system,” Dr. Peter English, former chair of the Medicines Committee, said in a statement. British Medical Association Public Health.
What worries scientists is the number of mutations that affect the spike protein. This is because most major vaccines target this protein. Vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and other companies use small fragments or genetic sequences of the virus but not the entire virus, all of which use fragments of the Spike protein to elicit immunity.
Therefore, a change in the spike protein that makes it less recognizable to the immune system proteins and cells stimulated by the vaccine would be problematic.
So far, there’s no evidence that this happens, but there’s no way to tell by just looking at the mutations. Researchers will have to wait to see if Omicron causes more infections than the other variants.
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