Jan 21, 2022
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Why is the omicron variant so contagious? It’s all about the spike protein

The new “mutant” SARS-CoV-2, first discovered in South Africa, has spread around the world in record time, almost replacing the dominant delta variant. Scientists from the University of British Columbia conducted the world’s first analysis of the omicron’s molecular structure and found out what exactly made it so infectious.

In their study, experts used the method of cryoelectron microscopy, which allows for the most accurate structural analysis. The authors focused on changes in the spike-shaped S-protein, with which the virus enters the cells of the body. As you know, the omicron variant has 37 new mutations, which is 3-5 times more than the earlier variants.

Structural analysis showed that several mutations create new “salt bridges” and hydrogen bonds between the spike protein and specific receptors on the surface of ACE-2 cells. According to the scientists, these factors enhance binding affinity, the ability of a virus to attach itself to cells. At the same time, other mutations reduce the strength of this connection.

“Obviously, the omicron variant has evolved to retain its ability to bind to human cells despite such extensive mutations,” the study authors said.

Scientists conducted a series of laboratory experiments that confirmed the fears of other researchers – the S-protein of the omicron variant does indeed have an increased ability to evade antibodies. In particular, compared to previous variants, omicron showed measurable evasion against all six monoclonal antibodies tested.

“Remarkably, Omicron evaded vaccine-induced immunity to a lesser extent compared to immunity from natural infection in unvaccinated patients. This suggests that vaccination remains our best defense, ”the scientists are convinced.

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