Researchers in Massachusetts have found that the Omicron COVID-19 variant may share genetic code with a coronavirus that causes the common cold. Photo by Peter Foley/UPI | License Photo
Dec. 4 (UPI) -- The Omicron COVID-19 variant may have picked up genetic material from a virus that causes the common cold, possibly making it more transmissible but less virulent than other variants, according to a preliminary study.
A preprint study from researchers from Cambridge, Mass.-based firm, Nference, found that snippet of genetic code that is also present in a virus that can bring about a cold after sequencing the Omicron variant, The Washington Post reported.
Researchers said the mutation could have stemmed from someone simultaneously infected with SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and HCoV-229R, which can cause the common cold.
The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.
Venky Soundararajan, a co-author of the study said the "striking" similarity between Omicron and HCoV-229E could have led the variant to be "more accustomed to human hosts" and more likely to evade immune responses.
"By virtue of Omicron adopting this insertion ... it is essentially taking a leaf out of the seasonal coronaviruses' page, which [explains] ... how it lives and transmits more efficiently with human beings," he said.
The variant has been rapidly spreading through South Africa, where scientists first identified it, and cases in Gauteng province -- home of the nation's densely populated economic hub -- have doubled roughly every three days.
South Africa also reported 11,535 new COVID-19 cases on Thursday, a 35% jump from the day before as its National Institute of Communicable Diseases said Wednesday that Omicron took over as the dominant strain in November, accounting for 74% of genomes sequenced.
The variant has since been discovered in dozens of countries and has been identified in at least 12 U.S. states.
The first U.S. Omicron case was identified in California on Wednesday with additional cases reported in Colorado, Hawaii, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Utah in the days following, according to health officials.
U.S. Health officials, however, have said the Delta variant remains the dominant strain in the country.
"We now have about 86,000 cases of COVID right now in the United States being diagnosed daily and 99.9% of them, the vast majority of them, continue to be Delta," U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said Friday.
"And we know what we need to do against Delta, and that is get vaccinated, get boosted if you're eligible and continue all of those prevention measures including masking," she added. "And those are very likely to work against the Omicron variant."