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Omicron Variant Mutation: Why Do Viruses Mutate?

The world is with its eyes on the new mutation of the omicron variant. In this article we explain why viruses mutate and cause so much concern and alert in the case of Coronavirus.

Image of coronavirus from the microscope

The world is once again in high tension and on alert due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in various regions. Photo: Pexels

LatinAmerican Post | María Fernanda Ramírez Ramos

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Leer en español: Mutación de variante Ómicron: ¿Por qué los virus mutan?

The world is once again in high tension and on alert due to the rapid spread of the Omicron variant and the rapid increase in COVID-19 cases in various regions. The concern lies in the threat posed by mutations to control the pandemic, which pose more challenges to vaccination, containment of the virus and, therefore, overcoming the economic and social crisis.

A few days have passed since the World Health Organization declared the existence of the new variant B.1.1.529 or omicron as worrisome and there is already talk of a new lineage of this that has been called BA.2. So far, the scientific community has found that it might not be that easy to identify using PCR testing.

Why do viruses mutate?

Mutations are changes that occur in organisms that have DNA or RNA genetic material. In reality, mutations are normal and happen all the time in organisms. In the case of viruses, the mutation implies that there are changes in the genetic code of this. This happens while it is replicating within a patient's body or when it is transmitted to another. In fact, the more a virus replicates, the more likely it is that changes will begin to appear in the code of the genetic material. As for the term variant, it refers to the grouping of similar mutations, which in turn are classified by lineages.

According to information from Yale University School of Medicine:Viruses tend to mutate faster than human cells. This is because human cells have mechanisms to correct the genome and also mechanisms to repair a sequence if an error is detected. Mutations can range in severity, from having no consequence to significantly altering a protein and its function." In this way, when the function of a protein changes, the virus is changed.

The case of COVID-19

At this point there are two scenarios: it becomes an advantage (for the virus) and spreads more easily, or it becomes a disadvantage (for the organism) that makes it disappear quickly. The case for the advantage was what happened with the mutations that became the alpha, beta, delta and gamma variants. Although the eyes of the world are on SARS-CoV-2, it is not actually the virus that mutates the fastest or represents the most complications. However, as it is a pandemic, it has had more media visibility.

In contrast, we can talk about the HIV virus, which due to mutations and recombinations in RNA, it has been more difficult for the scientific community to find vaccines and drugs to treat it. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that “Most HIV strains that are highly resistant to zidovudine (AZT) or other antiviral drugs have multiple mutations, which act synergistically to confer the resistant phenotype. that medicine ”.

As the mutation in the SARS-CoV-2 virus can have an impact on the detection of the virus through the tests developed, as appears to be the case of the BA.2 lineage, in February the FDA created a Policy to Evaluate the Impact of Mutations Viral in COVID-19 Testing to provide recommendations and guidance on evaluating the impact of mutations in COVID-19 testing.

We recommend you read: Omicron Variant: The End of the Pandemic?

The fact that the coronavirus virus constantly mutates has been a constant threat to the scientific community, as it implies that efforts to understand the operation of new mutations in record time be curtailed and what implications it will have on their spread, aggressiveness, detection and behavior against vaccines. In addition, there is the pressure to have results, since knowledge of viruses and their mutations is essential to establish public health policies.

On the other hand, this pandemic and the mutations have demonstrated the importance of humanity having greater cooperation processes and reducing such great inequalities between countries. In the case of mutations, if their impact is to be mitigated, it is necessary that the majority of the population be vaccinated. In this way, the virus will not spread as quickly and there will be less chance of mutations developing, which is natural for them to continue to appear anyway. This implies that the poorest countries receive assistance in vaccinating their population and the pandemic is addressed as a problem common to humanity, beyond borders. In addition, there is a great responsibility for individuals who do not want to be vaccinated or who have lax in self-protection measures, which cause the virus to continue to spread.

The outlook is not so encouraging yet, according to the Global Health Security Index (GHSI), countries are not yet prepared to face another eventual pandemic. At this point of global crisis, it is essential to have control over the pandemic, which allows the economic and social crisis to be overcome. However, it is also key that the rulers look to the future in the strengthening of the health system and in the capacities that the coronavirus has shown to be an urgent need.