Scientists call omicron “the most mutated virus we’ve ever seen”. Why is this important?

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The omicron variant of COVID-19 is the latest ‘variant of concern’ identified by the World Health Organization. (Oli Scarff / AFP via Getty Images)

We don’t yet know much about the omicron variant of COVID-19, which is starting to spread around the world and has been detected several times here in the United States. it is too early to draw general conclusions. It is also not yet clear whether it is better at evading vaccine protection than the previous variants.

But there’s one thing we keep hearing from scientists who have taken a close look at the omicron version of the virus: it really is mutated.

“It’s possibly the most mutated virus we’ve ever seen,” Alex Sigal told CBS News. Sigal leads a team of researchers working to learn more about omicron.

Lawrence Young, a virologist at the University of Warwick, described omicron as “the most heavily mutated version of the virus we’ve seen,” including potentially worrying changes never seen before in the same virus.

More mutations don’t necessarily make a virus more dangerous either. “In principle, mutations can also work against each other,” Jesse Bloom, an evolutionary biologist in Seattle, told The New York Times.

But viruses, like other organisms, evolve over time to increase their chances of survival. A stronger virus, of course, is generally bad news for us people. This is why scientists are initially worried when they see a highly mutated virus.

Of the many mutations in omicron, about 30 of them are found on a part of the virus called the spike protein. This worries scientists because it could affect the degree of transmissibility of the variant.

Sharon Peacock, who led the genetic sequencing of COVID-19 in Britain at the University of Cambridge, said data so far suggests that the new variant has mutations “compatible with improved transmissibility”, but said that “the significance of most mutations is still not known.

But scientists who have examined it closely also note that the omicron lacks some of the delta mutations that make it highly contagious. There is a chance that the delta variant, the dominant strain in the United States right now, is even more transmissible than omicron, so omicron may never take off.

“This is really the big question. You know, when he gets into a population that has Delta, is he going to outperform the competition or not? Robert Garry, virologist at Tulane University, told CNN.

In addition to the mutations that make the omicron more contagious, scientists are also studying any mutations that could cause more serious disease or escape vaccines more easily.

“There is currently no information to suggest that the symptoms associated with omicron are any different from those of other variants,” said the World Health Organization. He said there was no evidence – as of yet – that COVID vaccines, tests and treatments are less effective against omicron.

Some experts say all omicron mutations could mean vaccine makers may have to adapt their products at some point. This also remains to be seen.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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