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The omicron variant may have evolved from the virus associated with the common cold, researchers out of Cambridge, Mass., said in a preliminary study released Friday, which suggests the variant could be much more transmissible than previously thought.
Nference, a biomedical company, released data revealing that omicron shares similar genetic material to HCoV-229E, a human coronavirus that causes common cold symptoms. Researchers posit that omicron evolved from an individual who was “co-infected” with Sars-CoV-2 and HCoV-229E.
The authors of the study found both viruses inside gastrointestinal and respiratory tissues of infected individuals. They wrote that “genomic interplay,” or the exchange of genetic material, could have led to omicron’s emergence. No other Sars-coV-2 variants have similar cross-genetic material with HCoV-229E.
Nference also compared omicron’s genetic material to other Sars-CoV-2 variants, including the highly transmissible and dominant delta variant. They found omicron hosts 26 mutations distinct to the variant.
Omicron first appeared in South Africa on Nov. 24 before it spread to more than two dozen countries on six continents, including the U.S., in roughly a week.
The variant has not yet been declared more deadly or more transmissible by the World Health Organization or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but its spread – much faster than delta – has alarmed the world and public health experts. The U.S. is among a number of countries restricting travel from multiple southern African countries.
South Africa, which had seen a lull before omicron was detected, saw cases jump from roughly 2,000 daily on Thanksgiving to more than 11,000 daily on Thursday.
Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said during a press conference on Wednesday that omicron’s deadliness and transmissibility, as well as the ability of vaccines to combat it, are still unclear.
“We’re going to get that information,” he added. “We’re going to get a lot more information.”