Scientists puzzle over the origins of Omicron : The Tribune India

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Amid the unprecedented spread of the Omicron variant, scientists are considering several competing theories about the origins of the highly mutated strain, media reported.

The coronavirus variant, which first emerged in late November, has been detected in more than 60 countries, as health officials around the world try to contain its rapid spread.

What surprised scientists is that the genetic features of omicron bear more similarities to forms of the virus circulating last year than to modern strains, such as beta and delta, the Financial Times reports.

David Stewart, Professor of Structural Biology at Oxford University, was quoted as saying that the mystery stems from the question of how “a whole range of mutations” appeared “under the radar”.

“It appears that she has been in hiding for a year,” added Sarah Otto, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of British Columbia.

The mystery led to competing theories – the virus appeared in an immunocompromised person with HIV, anti-Covid drugs speeded its development, and crossed into an animal species that later jumped into humans.

According to Richard Lisels, an infectious disease physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, Omicron has its roots somewhere in South Africa.

Late last year, a South African research team discovered an untreated HIV patient who had contracted Covid-19 for more than six months. The team found that the person had a series of mutations that affected the spike protein. The report said that a British study observed a similar process in a Covid patient with leukemia.

Lessels explained that the immune response of an untreated HIV patient would be “too weak to get rid of the virus but strong enough to drive evolution.”

“This evolutionary path is likely to be rare but is a plausible reason for the emergence of the omicron,” he said.

Jonathan Lee, director of the Harvard/Brigham Specialist Laboratory of Virology, echoed the concern in Boston. He said it was “astonishing” that two different types of anxiety had emerged – beta and delta – in South Africa, a region with “large numbers of immunosuppressed individuals as a result of HIV infection”.

“The collision between high case numbers, low vaccine availability, and the decades of HIV crisis means that the chance of immunocompromised individuals contracting Covid is very long,” Otto said.

Another theory speculates that the mutations may be caused by Merck’s Covid-19 antiviral pill, as South Africa was among the sites selected for the clinical trial of molnopiravir, which began in October 2020, according to William Haseltine, a virologist.

The drug causes an explosion of bugs to prevent the virus’s ability to spread.

“The timing is right. I’m not saying it happened, but it could have happened,” Haseltine told the Financial Times.

However, Merck refuted this claim. The company told the Financial Times that the “unfounded claim has no scientific basis or basis”.

Moreover, the theory that the mutation originated in animals before being transmitted to humans “isn’t entirely implausible but there is little reason to believe that it did,” according to Stuart Ray, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

“When you look at the passage of human viruses in animals, they accumulate mutations that fit that host, not humans.” Meanwhile, medics and scientists have stressed that no matter how Omicron turns out, wealthier Western nations must focus on the need for equality in vaccines to end the pandemic.

– Ian

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