Why The COVID-19 Omicron Variant Might Share Similarities With The Common Cold

The Omicron variant has sparked a lot of anxiety worldwide, in large part because of its many mutations. The variant has 32 mutations on its spike protein, which is more than three times as many as the Delta variant, and some of these mutations are more concerning than others (per Your Local Epidemiologist). For this reason, many people have feared that the variant could not only spread more quickly but could cause more severe illness and death than other strains of the virus.

Fortunately, emerging data from the South African Medical Research Council suggest that while the variant is probably more contagious, it is not likely to result in more severe illness than other strains of COVID-19. Of course, early data should be taken with caution — COVID-19 death rates tend to lag at least a few weeks behind case rates (via Harvard). But if it turns out that the Omicron variant does cause less severe illness than other strains of COVID-19, we may have a pretty good idea as to why.

The Omicron variant may share genetic material with the common cold

According to early research that has not yet been peer-reviewed, the Omicron variant may have picked up at least one of its mutations from another virus present within the same host (via OSF Preprints). This mutation has not been found in any other lineage of SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) besides Omicron, but is present in many viruses that cause the common cold, according to Reuters.

There have been reports of COVID-19 patients having co-infections with common cold viruses, and research has shown that SARS-CoV-2 can coexist with other viruses within respiratory and gastrointestinal cells. As Reuters points out, this provides the opportunity for viral recombination, which happens when two viruses interact as they make copies of themselves, leading to progeny that share genes from both of its parent viruses. With all of this in mind, the researchers believe that the Omicron variant may have obtained this mutation from a common cold virus coexisting within the same cells, within a person infected with both viruses.

What could all of this mean? According to Reuters, it could mean that the Omicron variant will be more contagious but also less likely to cause severe illness and death, but we need far more data before we know for sure.