Research

What's Happening: Omicron's 13 Key Mutations

War of the Worlds is one of my favorite films.I've watched it countless times, but only recently thought about the ending. The powerful inhabitants of Mars destroyed most of the people and there was practically no chance for humanity to survive. But no matter how strong and smart the aliens were, they lost this war - invisible viruses and bacteria dealt with uninvited guests in no time. Fortunately, the aliens described by HG Wells do not live on Mars, but the conclusion suggests itself - the outcomes of many wars and the fate of civilizations were often determined not by generals and kings. Viruses and bacteria did it for them. In fact, our entire history is the history of the fight against deadly diseases, and today we are again at war. COVID-19 appeared as a result of natural evolutionary processes and turned everything upside down in a couple of years. All our vanity and confidence in our own superiority give in to a tiny infectious agent with a modest name SARS-CoV-2. But how to understand whether our enemy is becoming stronger or, on the contrary, is rapidly retreating?

We have invented effective vaccines, but we have not been able to ensure their fair distribution, which has led to an increased mutation of the coronavirus.

Omicron and its derivatives

The virus, which was first discovered in ChinaWuhan at the end of 2019, today does not pose a threat. But his descendants (or variants) spread around the world at an unprecedented rate. The virus turned out to be more cunning and learned to bypass immune defenses, improving skills with the help of mutations. We are fighting one of these right now, but the next ones are on the way.

A distinctive feature of Omicron was the ability todistribution and similarity to the common cold. It got to the point that without special tests it is almost impossible to determine what exactly is the cause of your illness - a harmless SARS or is it covid?

Major mutations of the new coronavirus

Researchers believe that Omicron comes fromSouth Africa, where other diseases besides covid are raging, and the vaccination rate is indecently low. For this reason, Omicron quickly acquired its own sub-variants. We recently reported on a new variant of BA-2 that is causing concern among scientists. The reason for their unrest is clear - a staggering number of mutations allowed Omicron to make an amazingly large leap in his evolution. But how?

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To answer this question, scientists are tryingfind out how Omicron used the new mutations to his advantage. Every time a virus replicates inside a cell, there is a small chance that the cell will make a defective copy of its genes. Many of these mutations would render the new viruses defective and unable to compete with other infections. But in the case of Omicron, this did not happen.

evolutionary leap

Let's briefly return to 2020, when the coronavirus slowly walked the planet, gradually acquiring mutations. The evolutionary process was slow and steady, until December - it was then that the BritishResearchers have discovered a new variant of COVID-19 in England with 23 mutations that were not present in the original variant isolated in Wuhan. This variant was called Alpha and soon became dominant in the world.

2021 brought with it others, quicklyexpanding options. While some remained restricted to certain countries or continents, the Delta variant, with 20 distinctive mutations, supplanted Alpha and became the dominant strain during the summer. Then came Omicron with his 53 mutations and right now he's pushing Delta out.

Differences between the two variants of COVID-19

Some mutations were common to Omicron,Delta and other options. This suggests that they have arisen multiple times and that natural selection has favored them over and over again,” the authors of the new study told The New York Times.

They then turned their attention toa spike protein (or spike) that anchors the surface of Omicron and allows it to attach to cells. In total, about 30 mutations were found in the spike protein alone, and 13 of them are extremely rare in other coronaviruses - even in their distant viral relatives found in bats.

It turns out if the mutation would be beneficial for the virusor even neutral, scientists would encounter it more often. But if mutations are rare or absent, this is usually a detrimental feature for the virus, preventing it from replicating. And yet Omicron ignored this logic - the variant not only did not die out, it literally took off - scientists have never seen anything like it before..

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13 mutations: what's next?

Researchers believe that 13 mutations are not accidentalscattered across the surface of Omicron. They form three clusters, each of which changes a small part of the protein. And each of these three areas plays a big role in Omicron's uniqueness.

Two clusters modify the spike protein neartip, allowing the virus to effectively infect even people who have been vaccinated or recovered from covid. The third cluster of mutations changes the spike protein closer to its base: this region is activated as soon as the tip of the spike clings to the cell, allowing the virus to deliver its genes into the new host.

Option variant strife

This new route of infection may help explainwhy Omicron is not as difficult to tolerate as its predecessors. The cells of the upper respiratory tract can easily absorb Omicron, but it gets to the lungs less frequently.

Probably Omicron drew a series of 13 badmutations in their favor, having evolved in unusual conditions, for example, in a host organism with reduced immunity. People with chronic infections can become evolutionary laboratories that will store many generations of coronaviruses, the authors of the scientific work write.

Moreover, scientists do not exclude that suchmutations can occur over and over again in the same person. This continues until the Omicron has settled into the right combination of mutations, allowing it to spread remarkably well among healthy people.

See also: Meet omicron - what exactly is known about the new variant of COVID-19?

The pandemic is unlikely to end in the next couple of years. But hope dies last

So, what do the results of the conductedresearch? In general, the work showed how difficult it is to reconstruct the evolution of a virus, even one that has emerged recently. As for the new options, according to many researchers, over time, the coronavirus will look more like the flu or SARS.

However, from time to time there may be moreserious variants of SARS-CoV-2 as the coronavirus continues to mutate. And yet, we have reason for optimism - most likely the following options in most cases will resemble a mild cold. Nature does everything in her own way to keep us humble.