The emergence of the omicron strain of COVID-19 is raising new questions about the still undetermined origin of the coronavirus outbreak and whether it leaked from a Chinese research laboratory in Wuhan in 2019.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief Biden administration pandemic response official, said the virus mutations in the omicron variant indicate an unusual, rapid evolution. The mutations are “very different” from earlier virus offshoots, although some of the mutations can be found in the delta variant and are linked to increased transmissibility and immune evasion, he said.
“There’s a very unusual constellation of changes across the SARS-CoV-2 genome, with greater than 30 of them in the important spike protein which is the business end of the virus, particularly in its receptor-binding domain where there are about 10 mutations there,” Dr. Fauci told reporters on Tuesday.
SARS-CoV-2 is the formal name of the virus that causes COVID-19.
The large number of mutations is raising new concerns about whether the virus was laboratory-derived or spread naturally from infected animals.
According to a former military medical doctor, there are significant mutations close to what is called the “furin cleavage site,” the area that can increase the virulence of the virus, that are sparking new concerns among public health officials.
An article from August in the journal Lancet Microbe states: “The presence of a furin cleavage motif at the SARS-CoV-2 S1–S2 interface is therefore highly unusual, leading to the smoking-gun hypothesis of manipulation that has recently gained considerable attention as a possible origin” of COVID-19.
Viruses, according to medical experts, tend to evolve from existing viruses that are already circulating, such as the delta variant, not from the first virus strain that emerged in China. Beijing has thwarted efforts by U.S. and international investigators to obtain details of the original strain.
The online outlet Science: The Wire stated in a post on Monday that “the omicron variant has virologists in particular worried because it seems to be very different from the ‘original’ strain of the virus — the strain that the current COVID-19 vaccines were designed to fight.”
The report said omicron has 50 mutations in all and 32 are linked to the spike protein that allows it to gain entry into host cells. The spike protein is the target of most current vaccines.
This has raised worries that the strain will have an extraordinary ability to infect humans, although reports so far say that most cases of the omicron strain of COVID-19 have been mild.
“Omicron’s genetic profile has raised legitimate concerns – but at the same time there is a marked shortage of real-world data to make sure. As a result, nobody has the complete picture of what the omicron variant is and isn’t capable of. We don’t know the magnitude of the threat posed by omicron,” the Science post said.
The unusual evolution of omicron and the timing of its emergence — just as the world is coming to grips with the delta variant — should fuel new investigations of whether the virus was manufactured in China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology. U.S. intelligence agencies remain divided over whether the virus originated in a laboratory or emerged naturally from an infected animal carrier such as a bat or a pangolin.