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

CoronavirusDec 03, 2021 11:21PM ET
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© Reuters. People queue at a popup COVID-19 testing site in New York, U.S., December 3, 2021. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon

By Nancy Lapid

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

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

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, said Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm nference, who led the study https://osf.io/f7txy posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints.

This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease. Scientists do not yet know whether Omicron is more infectious than other variants, whether it causes more severe disease or whether it will overtake Delta as the most prevalent variant. It may take several weeks to get answers to these questions.

Cells in the lungs and in the gastrointestinal system can harbor SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies. Such co-infection sets the scene for viral recombination, a process in which two different viruses in the same host cell interact while making copies of themselves, generating new copies 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picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.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 causes colds in people - known as HCoV-229E - and in the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS, Soundararajan said.

South Africa, where Omicron was first identified, has the world's highest rate of HIV, which weakens the immune system and increases a person's vulnerability to infections with common-cold viruses and 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 might have occurred, Soundararajan said.

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

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

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

"You have to vaccinate to reduce the odds that other people, who are immunocompromised, will encounter the SARS-CoV-2 virus," Soundararajan said.

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

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Comments (4)
Alan Rice
Alan Rice Dec 05, 2021 3:35PM ET
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......common cold "?? That does it. NOW, I'm going to get my Booster !! ( before I come down with irritability. )
Mike Holden
Mike Holden Dec 04, 2021 10:22AM ET
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"Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus." Hopefully this will lead to the cure for the common cold; can you imagine the cold remedy isle at the local drug store gone? we're talking about taking away all that billions of dollars of profit for the drug/vaccine makers that make cold remedies.
Tom Car
Tom Car Dec 04, 2021 10:00AM ET
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Virus is learning how to survive within human and humans learned how to live with it. So . Goverment must stop creating fear to control people and let us m9ve on with our life, free economy. President Fauci shall retire at this point
Grab My Grape Sack
Grab My Grape Sack Dec 04, 2021 10:00AM ET
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You don't sound smart. If you don't trust others, at least reflect on your life to gauge how correct you are.
Samantha Sa
Samantha Sa Dec 04, 2021 5:25AM ET
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Welcome to world of viruses. They mutate, marry, merge and reproduce. It's a microcosm of evolving species with the raw instinct to survive. Now let's talk about gain of function. The issue is rapidity. Where are the reports to identify the sequence for gain of function to mitigate rapidity? With bias that South Africa is somehow the exemplar that low vaccination rates result in mutation, reports that SA has a low rate of vaccinations and a high rate of HIV do not disclose that SA also has a phenomenal high rate of recovery and low rate of mortality for COVID19. Leading causes of death, similar to North America, are diabetes and heart disease.
Martijn WN
Speculeerbeer Dec 04, 2021 5:25AM ET
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Have you ever looked at the age distribution of South Africa? It might hold answers to many your questions.
John Laurens
John Laurens Dec 04, 2021 5:25AM ET
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Martijn WN  and if SA has a younger demographic, that might mean countries with lots of fat lazy people are more at risk.
Grab My Grape Sack
Grab My Grape Sack Dec 04, 2021 5:25AM ET
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he is trying to decide whether gun, or bullet is responsible for gun deaths.
 
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