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Scientists suggest Omicron existed since 2020 in quest for variant origin

Scientists suggest Omicron existed since 2020 in quest for variant origin

Scientists seeking convincing knowledge on how Omicron managed to quietly evolve and sustain mutation, have come up with varying theories on how the highly infectious variant might have originated.

One of them, Sarah Otto, professor of evolutionary biology at the University of British Columbia said the variant might have hidden under the radar for over a year because Omicron’s genetic traits bear more similarity to forms of the virus circulating in 2020 than more recent strains, such as Beta and Delta.

The disease detectives went to work after reports of the discovery of Omicron sprang up from South Africa towards November end, and the genetic sequencing details were uploaded to a global database.

A common theory among virologists is that Omicron spent months mutating in an individual with a weakened immune system and a chronic infection, according to a Financial Times report.

Other theories accuse the use of anti-Covid drugs of speeding up evolution and that there is the possibility that a crossover into an animal species that later jumped back into humans occurred.

Given that South Africa has faced the first wave of Omicron infections, it is likely that the variant traces its roots to somewhere in the region, said Richard Lessells, an infectious diseases physician at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban.

A South African research team, which included Lessells, discovered an untreated HIV patient late last year who was infected with Covid-19 for more than six months and gave rise to a string of mutations that affected the spike protein, the part of the virus where most of Omicron’s adaptations are located.

A UK study observed a similar process in a Covid patient with blood cancer. The immune response of an untreated HIV patient would be “too weak to clear the virus but strong enough to drive the process of evolution,” explained Lessells.

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He said this process would allow coronavirus to mutate without being “picked up” as many of these patients are asymptomatic and therefore do not get tested.

“This evolutionary pathway is likely to be rare but it’s a plausible reason for the emergence of Omicron,” said Lessells.

More than half of the world’s 37.7m HIV sufferers are in east and southern Africa. In South Africa alone, around 1.9m individuals have HIV that is undetected, untreated, or poorly controlled, according to UNAIDs, the UN programme on HIV/Aids.

Jonathan Li, director of the Harvard/Brigham virology specialty laboratory in Boston, said it was “striking” that two variants of concern — Beta and Omicron — had arisen in southern Africa, a region with “large numbers of immunosuppressed individuals as a result of HIV infection”.

“The collision of high case numbers, low vaccine availability, and decades of an HIV crisis means that the chance immunocompromised individuals have been carrying Covid for a while is very high,” said Otto. “It’s important to recognize that many of these health crises are not independent of one another.”

Another theory about how Omicron emerged in southern Africa has been advanced by William Haseltine, a virologist who has speculated that mutations could have been caused by Merck’s Covid-19 antiviral pill.

He noted that South Africa was among the locations chosen for clinical trials of the drug Molnupiravir, which began in October 2020.

The drug disrupts the ability of the virus to replicate by causing an explosion of errors that prevent it from spreading when mutations reach a certain level.

UK and EU regulators have already authorised Molnupiravir for emergency use but some scientists, including Haseltine, have warned that its mutagenic properties could, under certain circumstances, create more dangerous variants.

These concerns were also raised by external experts at a US Food and Drug Administration meeting last week.

“That is a very heavily mutated virus and that is the kind of patterns you see with Molnupiravir,” Haseltine told the Financial Times. “And the timing is right. I’m not saying it happened, but it could have happened.”

Merck told the FT that Haseltine’s “unfounded allegation has no scientific basis or merit”.

“There is no evidence to indicate that any antiviral agent has contributed to the emergence of circulating variants,” said a Merck spokeswoman.

As more genomes are sequenced worldwide, researchers are beginning to piece together the origins of Omicron. Each genome from areas with limited genomic surveillance coverage helps understand the missing branches of Omicron’s phylogenetic tree, said Lessells. More than 1,300 Omicron sequences have been uploaded to Gisaid, a global genomics repository, since November 22.

Recent sequencing has shown the idea that Omicron was spreading undetected for some time in an area not sampled by genome testing to be “increasingly implausible”, according to Stuart Ray, professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

“As we get more sequencing data, it is clear that the genomes are tightly clustered,” explained Ray. “There would be more diversity if it had been spreading undetected.”

The theory that the mutation arose in animals before being passed back to humans “is not completely implausible but there is very little reason to believe that happened”, Ray added. “When you look at the passage of human viruses in animals, they accumulate mutations that are suited to that host.”