A new variant of coronavirus has the world in check. The WHO has already named it Omicron and has warned that it could lead to an “increased risk of reinfection”. But how and where did the B.1.1.529 variant, first identified in South Africa, originate?
The origin of the variant is being debated in South Africa. It is a country with high levels of infection and relatively low vaccination rates (about 24% have been fully vaccinated).
Origin of the Omicron variant
Francois Balloux, director of the UCL Genetics Institute and professor of computational biology at University College London, said in a statement published by the Science Media Centre that the new variant is likely to have evolved during a chronic infection of an immunosuppressed person, possibly in an untreated HIV or AIDS patient.
The skyrocketing number of HIV cases has complicated South Africa’s efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, as immunosuppressed people can harbor the virus longer, the scientists said.
An amalgam of mutations
The detection of this new variant of the coronavirus is of concern to the scientific community because it presents an amalgam of more than 30 mutations that, although some had already been observed in other variants, such as beta, this is the first time they have been seen together.
Although confirmed cases of this variant are still few, in South Africa, the country with the highest incidence to date, so far no differences were identified in terms of the effects of the disease compared to other variants.
Symptoms and consequences
For now, because research is at a very early stage, it is unknown what impact this new variant might have on the transmissibility of the virus and its potential resistance to vaccines.
South African scientists also point out that the new variant is likely to be behind the rapid increase in cases detected in recent days in the country – especially in the populous Gauteng province (where Johannesburg and Pretoria are located) – and data suggest that it is predominating over the delta.