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Now that the full sequence of Omicron has become known it’s remarkable to see how different Omicron is from all the other SARS-CoV-2 variants. It did not arise as a simple mutation of the others, it’s different in several ways. It has 60 RNA mutations causing 36 amino acid changes, several in the all-important spike protein. In a radial graph of genetic distance Omicron forms its own group way off to the side of the other variants (see diagram).
This is reflected in the fact that Omicron is very different in the way it affects humans. It grows 70 times faster than Delta and is more infectious than Delta but it is less likely to cause death. Officials have been reluctant to acknowledge that Omicron is milder, but huge increases in infection rates have resulted in very small increases in the death rate in the latest wave. It’s more like the common cold than other SARS-CoV-2 causing a runny nose, sore throat, and a fever. It acts like the common cold, blitzing through an office or classroom just like a cold strain does — causing typical cold-like symptoms.
So it strikes me that Omicron might not be a true SARS-CoV-2 variant at all. Perhaps it arose from one of the many other coronaviruses out there. We know that several coronavirus are recognized as causes of the common cold, of which there are hundreds, most of which are rhinovirus variants. Not to get too deep into the weeds, but some of these cold-producing coronavirus variants bind to ACE receptors like SARS-CoV-2, and some bind to other things. All of these viruses cause the cold syndrome and are only very rarely deadly toward immunocompromised people.
But Omicron still shares some features of the original SARS-CoV-2 strains, so it shows up in the PCR and antigen detection systems — it’s recognized as a cause of COVID and officials are treating it that way even though it’s not causing typical COVID.
The difference is important. We can’t be shutting down and killing the economy every time another coronavirus comes along if it just causes a common cold. Some common sense needs to be employed in implementing public policy.Published in