Origin of the virus variant: How Omikron rages in the animal kingdom

THEmikron puzzles the researchers. The genetic makeup of the new virus variant has changed so much that there is a large gap in the pathogen’s family tree: Despite the almost six million SARS-CoV-2 genomes that are now available, there are no intermediate levels.

Omikron has accumulated more than fifty mutations compared to the original SARS-CoV-2. There are currently three hypotheses about the origin of the new variant: The virus could have developed unnoticed for a year. It could have originated in an immunocompromised person or in animals. That would mean that SARS-CoV-2, which originally probably jumped from bats into humans via an intermediate host, would have jumped into another animal, would have adapted to the new host in order to get back into humans from there.

What sounds quite adventurous has already become reality: In April of last year, it became known that mink had been infected with SARS-CoV-2 through people in the Netherlands. Such cases were later reported in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and the United States. The virus found ideal conditions in fur farms – a lot of animals in a confined space – and multiplied explosively. It was later proven that it jumped back into humans: SARS-CoV-2 had developed new mutations in the minks. Many fur farms had even developed their own genomic signature.

“This is worrying because there is a risk that new reservoirs will arise,” says virologist Marion Koopmans from the Erasmus MC in Rotterdam. “This can lead to an evolution of the virus that runs parallel to that in humans.” Over time, this could lead to deviant strains, which themselves become a new threat because they undermine the effectiveness of the vaccines. To prevent this risk, almost three million mink were culled in the Netherlands alone.


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