Given the large number of mutations found in the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant, experts in South Africa speculate it likely evolved in someone with a compromised immune system
As the SARS-CoV-2 Omicron variant spreads around the United States and the rest of the world, infectious disease experts in South Africa have been investigating how the variant developed so many mutations. One hypothesis is that it evolved over time in the body of an immunosuppressed person, such as a cancer patient, transplant recipient, or someone with uncontrolled human immunodeficiency virus infection (HIV).
One interesting facet in the story of how the Omicron variant was being tracked as it emerged in South Africa is the role of several medical laboratories in the country that reported genetic sequences associated with Omicron. This allowed researchers in South Africa to more quickly identify the growing range of mutations found in different samples of the Omicron virus.
“Normally your immune system would kick a virus out fairly quickly, if fully functional,” Linda-Gail Bekker, PhD, of the Desmond Tutu Health Foundation (formerly the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation) in Cape Town, South Africa, told the BBC.
“In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see virus persisting,” she added. “And it doesn’t just sit around, it replicates. And as it replicates it undergoes potential mutations. And in somebody where immunity is suppressed that virus may be able to continue for many months—mutating as it goes.”
Multiple factors can suppress the immune system, experts say, but some are pointing to HIV as a possible culprit given the likelihood that the variant emerged in sub-Saharan Africa, which has a high population of people living with HIV.
In South Africa alone, “2.2 million people are infected with HIV that is undetected, untreated, or poorly controlled,” infectious-diseases specialist Jonathan Li, MD, told The Los Angeles Times. Li is the Director of the Virology Specialty Laboratory at Brigham and Woman’s Hospital in Massachusetts, and the Director of the Harvard University Center for AIDS Research Clinical Core.
Li “was among the first to detail extensive coronavirus mutations in an immunosuppressed patient,” the LA Times reported. “Under attack by HIV, their T cells are not providing vital support that the immune system’s B cells need to clear an infection.”
Omicron Spreads Rapidly in the US
Genomics surveillance Data from the CDC’s SARS-CoV-2 Tracking system indicates that on Dec. 11, 2021, Omicron accounted for about 7% of the SARS-CoV-2 variants in circulation, the agency reported. But by Dec. 25, the number had jumped to nearly 60%. The data is based on sequencing of SARS-CoV-2 by the agency as well as commercial clinical laboratories and academic laboratories.
Experts have pointed to several likely factors behind the variant’s high rate of transmission. The biggest factor, NPR reported, appears to be the large number of mutations on the spike protein, which the virus uses to attach to human cells. This gives the virus an advantage in evading the body’s immune system, even in people who have been vaccinated.
“The playing field for the virus right now is quite different than it was in the early days,” Joshua Schiffer, MD, of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, told NPR. “The majority of variants we’ve seen to date couldn’t survive in this immune environment.”
One study from Norway cited by NPR suggests that Omicron has a shorter incubation period than other variants, which would increase the transmission rate. And researchers have found that it multiplies more rapidly than the Delta variant in the upper respiratory tract, which could facilitate spread when people exhale.
Using Genomics Testing to Determine How Omicron Evolved
But how did the Omicron variant accumulate so many mutations? In a story for The Atlantic, virologist Jesse Bloom, PhD, Professor, Basic Sciences Division, at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, described Omicron as “a huge jump in evolution,” one that researchers expected to happen “over the span of four or five years.”
Hence the speculation that it evolved in an immunosuppressed person, perhaps due to HIV, though that’s not the only theory. Another is “that the virus infected animals of some kind, acquired lots of mutations as it spread among them, and then jumped back to people—a phenomenon known as reverse zoonosis,” New Scientist reported.
Still, experts are pointing to emergence in someone with a weakened immune system as the most likely cause. One of them, the L.A. Times reported, is Tulio de Oliveira, PhD, Affiliate Professor in the Department of Global Health at the University of Washington. Oliveira leads the Centre for Epidemic Response and Innovation at Stellenbosch University in South Africa, as well as the nation’s Network for Genomic Surveillance.
The Network for Genomic Surveillance, he told The New Yorker, consists of multiple facilities around the country. Team members noticed what he described as a “small uptick” in COVID cases in Gauteng, so on Nov. 19 they decided to step up genomic surveillance in the province. One private clinical laboratory in the network submitted “six genomes of a very mutated virus,” he said. “And, when we looked at the genomes, we got quite worried because they discovered a failure of one of the probes in the PCR testing.”
Looking at national data, the scientists saw that the same failure was on the rise in PCR (Polymerase chain reaction) tests, prompting a request for samples from other medical laboratories. “We got over a hundred samples from over thirty clinics in Gauteng, and we started genotyping, and we analyzed the mutation of the virus,” he told The New Yorker. “We linked all the data with the PCR dropout, the increase of cases in South Africa and of the positivity rate, and then we began to see it might be a very suddenly emerging variant.”
Oliveira’s team first reported the emergence of the new variant to the World Health Organization, on Nov. 24. Two days later, the WHO issued a statement that named the newly classified Omicron variant (B.1.1.529) a “SARS-CoV-2 Variant of Concern.”
Microbiologists and clinical laboratory specialists in the US should keep close watch on Omicron research coming out of South Africa. Fortunately, scientists today have tools to understand the genetic makeup of viruses that did not exist at the time of SARS 2003, Swine flu 2008/9, MERS 2013.