Will omicron – the new coronavirus variant of concern – be more contagious than delta? A virus evolution expert explains what researchers know and what they don't - The Conversation US
Nov 30, 2021 1 min, 49 secs
Omicron is very unusual in that it is by far the most heavily mutated variant yet of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The omicron variant has 50 mutations overall, with 32 mutations on the spike protein alone.

While the unusually high number of mutations in the omicron variant is surprising, the emergence of yet another SARS-CoV-2 variant is not unexpected?

If and when a set of mutations provides a survival advantage to a variant over its predecessors, the variant will out-compete all other existing virus variants.

Does the omicron variant’s greater number of mutations mean it is more dangerous and transmissible than delta.

Researchers have hypothesized that some of the earlier SARS-CoV-2 variants, such as the alpha variant, may have stemmed from a persistently infected patient.

However, the unusual constellation and numerous mutations in the omicron variant make it very different from all other SARS-CoV-2 strains, which raises questions about how it came about.

Delta is between 40% and 60% more transmissible than the alpha variant and nearly twice as transmissible as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus first identified in China.

The delta variant replicates faster than previous SARS-CoV-2 variants, and a not-yet-peer-reviewed study estimated that it produces 1,000 times more virus particles than its predecessors.

The delta variant has also acquired mutations that would allow it to evade neutralizing antibodies that serve a critical role in the body’s defense against an invading virus.

Studies also show that people infected with the delta variant have a higher risk of being hospitalized compared to those infected with the original SARS-CoV-2 and early variants.

Omicron shares some mutations with the delta variant but also possesses others that are quite different.

But one of the reasons why we in the research community are particularly concerned is that the omicron variant has 10 mutations in the receptor-binding domain – the part of the spike protein that interacts with the ACE-2 receptor and mediates entry into cells – compared with just two for the delta variant.

However, it is also possible that the unusually high number of mutations could be detrimental to the virus and make it unstable.

It is highly likely that the omicron variant is not the endgame and that more SARS-CoV-2 variants will emerge


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