Omicron has frightening mutations. It doesn't mean they work well together

The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has alarmed many scientists because of the large number of genetic mutations it carries – around ...


The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has alarmed many scientists because of the large number of genetic mutations it carries – around 50 in total, including at least 26 of its own. Corn more does not necessarily mean worse: Mutations sometimes combine to make a virus more fearsome, but they can also cancel each other out.

“In principle, mutations can also work against each other,” said Jesse Bloom, evolutionary biologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. “However, in this case, evolutionary selection is more likely to lead to the propagation of a new variant with favorable than unfavorable mutational combinations.”

Yet this phenomenon, known as epistasis, is why scientists are reluctant to speculate on Omicron’s attributes, even though individual mutations in the variant are associated with greater transmissibility or an ability to bypass the immune system’s defenses. body.

“It’s important to get a feel for the virus in its entirety,” said Penny Moore, virologist at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa.

Dr. Moore’s team is one of dozens of people around the world trying to figure out whether current vaccines will work against Omicron. Researchers are creating artificial versions of the virus that contain all of Omicron’s mutations, rather than making judgments based on a subset of mutations.

It’s a lesson researchers learned last year, when the beta variant appeared in South Africa. They estimated the ability of this variant to evade immunity on the basis of a particular mutation, E484K. But Beta also had two other mutations that were found to affect vaccine sensitivity.

“The combination of these three mutations was more resistant than a virus that contained only E484K,” said Dr. Moore. The study of the single mutation “has been shown to be misleading”.

Omicron carries a mutation called N501Y, which allows the virus to bind more tightly to human cells. This mutation was also present in the Alpha variant and was linked to its contagiousness.

“Nonetheless, it ended up being Delta, which doesn’t have that particular mutation, which was even more transmissible than Alpha,” Dr Bloom said. “This is because Delta had other mutations that improve transmissibility.”

The contagiousness of a variant depends on how the virus binds to receptors in human cells, but also on the stability of the virus, where it replicates in the airways and how much is exhaled.

Omicron has a group of mutations which are all linked to closer binding to human cells. “But acting together, they might have a somewhat different effect,” Dr Bloom said. Because of this, he added, he cannot predict how the variant will work in the body.

This will require laboratory studies, which are underway around the world.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Omicron has frightening mutations. It doesn't mean they work well together
Omicron has frightening mutations. It doesn't mean they work well together
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