LONDON: The Omicron variant may spread more easily than other COVID strains because it shares some genetic material with the common cold virus and is more infectious among children, scientists have claimed.
A study led by Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm Nference, shows the strain contains a genetic sequence common in other viruses, including those that cause the common cold, and also in the human genome.
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, who led the study posted on Thursday on the website OSF Preprints. This could mean the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild or asymptomatic disease.
Meanwhile, South African officials warned higher hospital admissions among children during the fourth wave of infections in the country. A large number of infants admitted with COVID last month in Tshwane, the metropolitan area that includes the capital Pretoria, raised concerns that the Omicron variant could pose greater risks for young children than other coronavirus variants. Scientists have yet to confirm any link and have cautioned that other factors could be at play.
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. New images of the Omicron variant’s 32 mutations (left) were released yesterday by the Covid Genomics UK Consortium (COG-UK).
They show the variant’s three mutations — H655Y, N679K, and P681H, located in the lower right of the image — that could help the virus sneak into the body more easily. Cells in the lungs and in the gastrointestinal system can harbour SARS-CoV-2 and common-cold coronaviruses simultaneously, according to earlier studies.
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picked up the genetic sequence from the other virus, Soundararajan and colleagues said in the study, which has not yet been peer-reviewed.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 cold 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. ‘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.
Meanwhile, a spate of hospitalisations in children in South Africa has caused concern among experts that the virus may be more infectious in younger people — although cases have been mild so far. Ntsakisi Maluleke, a public health specialist in the Gauteng province that includes Tshwane and the biggest city Johannesburg, said that out of the 1,511 COVID-positive patients in hospitals in the province 113 were under nine years old, a greater proportion than during previous waves of infection. ‘We are comforted by clinicians’ reports that the children have mild disease,’ she said, adding health officials and scientists were investigating what was driving the increased admissions in younger ages and were hoping to provide more clarity in the coming two weeks.
On Thursday, the US recorded 140,875 COVID cases with a seven-day rolling average of 101,119, marking the first time the average has surpassed six figures since October. The US also recorded 3,800 daily COVID-19 deaths on Thursday, which is the highest figure seen in three months