The first sample of the Omicron or B.1.1.529 line was obtained on November 9, according to WHO. It is notable for the increase in cases in South Africa.
“This new variant, B.1.1.529 seems to go viral!” Tulio de Oliveira, director of the South African Center for Epidemiological Response and Innovation, and a genetics researcher at Stellenbosch University, said on Twitter.
In addition, genetic sequencing revealed that it carried a worryingly large number of mutations on the mutant protein – the knob-like structure on the surface of the virus that it uses to attach itself to the cells it infects. .
Some of those mutations have been recognized from other variants and are known to make them more dangerous, including one called E484A – a slightly altered version of the mutation called E484K. can make the virus harder to recognize for some antibodies – immune system proteins that are a front line of defense against infection and the basis of monoclonal antibody treatments.
It also carries a mutation called N501Y, which increases the transmissibility of both Alpha and Gamma. Just last week, Scott Weaver of the University of Texas Medical Branch and colleagues Reported in the journal Nature that this particular mutation made the virus better replicate in the upper respiratory tract – think in the nose and throat – and potentially made it more likely to spread when people breathe, sneeze and cough.
Like Delta, Omicron also carries a mutation called D614G, which seems to help the virus stick to the cells it infects better.
“An increased number of mutations doesn’t mean the new variant will cause any problems; although it can make it look different to the immune system,” said Dr Peter English, former chair of Public Health of the British Medical Association Commission, said in a statement.
What worries scientists is the number of mutations that affect the spike protein. That’s because most of the leading vaccines target the spike protein. Vaccines made by Pfizer/BioNTech, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca, and others use only small pieces or genetic sequences of the virus, not the whole virus, and all use use bits of mutant protein to stimulate immunity. So a change in the mutant protein that makes it less recognizable to immune system proteins and cells stimulated by the vaccine would be a problem.
So far, there is no evidence that this has happened but there is no way to tell by just looking at the mutations. Researchers will have to wait and see if there are more breakthrough infections caused by Omicron than other variants.
Another fear is that mutations could help make the virus less susceptible to monoclonal antibody treatments. However, the WHO said it was unlikely that these mutations would affect other Covid-19 treatments, including the antiviral drug being developed and the steroid dexamethasone.
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