SARS-CoV-2 Omicron Variant Displays Genetic Similarities to Common Cold

According to researchers, the Omicron variant developed one of its mutations by picking up a piece of genetic material from the common cold.

The SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant may have acquired at least 1 mutation through genetic material from the virus that causes the common cold, according to results of a preprint study.

Researchers have found that the insertion of a specific mutation (ins214EPE) has not been previously observed in other COVID-19 variants. The Omicron variant, however, looks similar to the common cold, according to the research, which allows the virus to look “more human” and trick—and evade—the immune system.1-3

“There is a need to understand the function of the Omicron insertion and whether human host cells are being exploited by SARS-CoV-2 as an ‘evolutionary sandbox’ for host-virus and inter-viral genomic interplay,” wrote study researchers.

Scientists compared the Omicron mutations with prior variants of concern, variants of interest, and all 1523 COVID-19 lineages constituting 5.4 million SARS-CoV-2 genomes.

“Characterizing the mutational profile of Omicron is necessary to interpret its shared or distinctive clinical phenotypes with other SARS-CoV-2 variants,” study authors explained.3

Whereas the substitution and deletion mutations have appeared in previous COVID-19 lineages, this particular genetic sequence has not been previously observed in any COVID-19 lineage other than Omicron; however, it is common many other viruses, including those that cause the common cold, as well as across the human genome, researchers said.1

By inserting this snippet into itself, Omicron is thought by researchers to be making itself look more human. Therefore, the virus transmits more easily, while only causing mild disease.

Previous research has shown that cells in the lungs and gastrointestinal system can host both SARS-CoV-2 and the common cold at the same time. This co-infection leads to viral recombination, a process where 2 viruses within the same host cell interact and generate new copies that include some genetic material from both “parents”.1

Omicron variant symptoms appear different from previous COVID-19 symptoms from earlier strains.Omicron variant symptoms include fever, scratchy throat, fatigue, and runny nose—similar to the symptoms often seen with the common cold.

It’s been hard for people nationwide to determine if they’re infected with COVID-19—specifically the omicron variant or the cold because the Omicron variant actually has genetic code from the common cold.

Researchers suggest the coronavirus waited in an immunocompromised host for a period of time which allowed it to pick up genetic material from the common cold, giving the variant some similarities to it, according to a report from BBC News.2

References

  1. Lapid N. Omicron variant may have picked up a piece of common-cold virus. Reuters. News release. December 3, 2021. Accessed January 3, 2022. https://www.reuters.com/business/healthcare-pharmaceuticals/omicron-variant-may-have-picked-up-piece-common-cold-virus-2021-12-03/
  2. Harding A. Omicron: South African scientists probe link between variants and untreated HIV. BBC. Published December 21, 2021. Accessed January 3, 2022. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-59697807
  3. Venkatarishnan AJ, Anand P, Lenehan PJ, et al. Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 harbors a unique insertion mutation of putative viral or human genomic origin. OSF Preprints. Published online December 2, 2021. doi: 10.31219/osf.io/f7txy