University of Missouri researchers publish new information on the ability of SARS-CoV-2 Omicron to infect and re-infect human cells
Clinical laboratories continue to report positive COVID-19 tests for people who have been vaccinated and even previously infected with the same variant of the coronavirus
Researchers around the world continue to study the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus and its many variants. Their goals are to curb the spread of disease and develop new therapies and treatments for optimal patient outcomes. Now, a study by scientists at the University of Missouri (UM) provides deeper insight into the processes the virus uses to mutate and subdue the human immune system. These findings could lead to improved antivirals and clinical laboratory testing for COVID-19.
The UM team identified specific mutations occurring in the virus’ spike protein that help Omicron subvariants evade existing antibodies and create an infection. These mutations may explain why some people who have had previous COVID-19 infections and/or are fully vaccinated continue to test positive for SARS-CoV-2, and why the virus continues to evolve.
“Omicron now has over 130 sublines and they have been here for quite a while. We are finally able to detect and differentiate them through this research,” said Kamlendra Singh, PhD, associate research professor at the Department of Veterinary Pathobiology from the UM College of Veterinary Medicine, in a UM press release.
“Previous variants, including Alpha, Beta, Gamma and Delta, have contributed to many of the mutations currently occurring with these Omicron variants. Thus, our research shows how the virus has evolved over time with new mutations” , he added.
The researchers published their findings in the International Journal of Molecular Sciencestitled “Omicron BA.2 Complex Mutation Model: Avoiding Antibodies Without Losing Receptor Interactions”.
“Throughout the pandemic, the [SARS-CoV-2] virus continued to get smarter and smarter. Even with vaccines, it continues to find new ways to mutate and evade existing antibodies,” said Kamlendra Singh, PhD (above), associate research professor, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Missouri , in a UM press release. The findings of this research team can help clinical laboratories further develop their SARS-CoV-2 antibody tests. (Photo copyright: University of Missouri.)
Antibodies for one variant, but not for another
The scientists began their investigation by searching online databases that track COVID-19 cases and analyzing the protein sequences of more than 10 million Omicron-related samples that have been collected from around the world since November of Last year.
They examined the available sequences, the structures of the spike/receptor and spike/antibody complexes of the samples, and then performed molecular dynamics simulations. The team used 3D modeling to pinpoint where mutations occur and created structures of the spike protein to determine how mutations are affected by antibodies and vaccinations.
The researchers found that the Omicron variant continues to mutate and has become extremely efficient at adapting. Reinfections occur because many individuals lack the antibodies for the new subvariants that continue to develop.
“Vaccinated individuals, or those who have previously tested positive, may have the antibodies for one variant but not necessarily for any of the other variants,” Singh explained. “The different mutations may seem like subtle differences, but they are very important.”
Research by UM scientists shows that it is possible to differentiate Omicron subvariants from each other and determine how certain mutations might become problematic for patients. According to Singh, many people can be infected with multiple variants at the same time. He hopes their work will enable vaccines and other treatments to specifically target different strains of the virus.
Singh also believes that the coronavirus will likely never disappear from society and that new variants and their sub-lines will continue to emerge and evolve.
“The ultimate solution in the future will likely be the development of small molecule, antiviral drugs that target parts of the virus that don’t mutate,” Singh said. “Although there is no vaccine for HIV, there are very effective antiviral drugs that help infected people lead healthy lives, so hopefully the same will happen with COVID-19. “
Omicron sub-variants may be here to stay
“I am proud of my team’s efforts as we have identified specific mutations for various variants throughout the pandemic, and it feels good to contribute research that helps address the situation,” Singh said. . “We will continue to help, as there will surely be new variants in the future.”
Singh is also part of a team that developed a supplement called CoroQuil-Zn, which was designed to reduce a patient’s viral load after being infected with SARS-CoV-2. The drug is currently being used in parts of India and is awaiting approval from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Clinical laboratories performing antibody testing for SARS-CoV-2 infections should be aware that the coronavirus will likely roam among humans for many years to come. This recent research may aid in the development of new antivirals, treatments, and vaccines that target specific subvariants for the best patient outcomes.
—J. P. Schlingman
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