The omicron variant of COVID-19 has evolved mutations that allow it to evade many antibodies humans have developed, a key to its increased transmissibility, University of Missouri research has found.
The research analyzed protein sequences from South Africa, Botswana and the United States.
"Existing antibodies cannot stop this variant because there are so many mutations," said lead researcher Kamlendra Singh, professor in the MU College of Veterinary Medicine. He's also assistant director of the MU Molecular Interactions Core and Bond Life Sciences Center investigator.
Antibodies usually bind to the spike protein of the virus to prevent infection, but the omicron variant has evolved 46 mutations, including 23 mutations to its spike protein.
"The virus mutated in such a way that it can escape the antibodies," Singh said. "The virus possibly has another route of entering the cell, but we don't have proof."
The research indicated antibodies have some effect, Singh said.
"Vaccinations did help, but somehow the variant escapes it or infects people who are already vaccinated," Singh said.
The research started with the efforts of a Hickman High School student, Singh said.
"I asked Saathvik to look into the mutations," Singh said of Saathvik Kannan, a sophomore at Hickman High School.
"He is basically an invaluable colleague," Singh said of Saathvik.
The research also was assisted by MU undergraduate student Austin Spratt.
"Both of them helped immensely," Singh said.
He supervised their work, he said.
"I have to help them understand and guide them what to look for," Singh said.
It was informative to work again in a collaborative environment with Singh and Spratt, said Saathvik, 16.
He analyzed between 70 and 80 sequences of the omicron variant before it arose as the dominant variant in the world. Those were all the sequences that were available then, though more have been established since then, he said.
"The research itself was very impactful," Saathvik said, adding that it helps other researchers.
Singh also worked on the project with Sid Byareddy of the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
It's a near-certainty that other COVID-19 variants will evolve, Singh said.
Singh also is working to develop antiviral treatments for those with COVID-19, working with others. It has resulted in the launch of Coroquil-Zn, currently used on patients in Tamil Nadu state in India. The manufacturer will seek FDA approval for its use in the United States.
In Indian news media, it's described as an ayurvedic remedy, referring to the ancient Hindu system of medicine.
"Its success rate was 100%" when tested on Indian patients in that country, he said.
He's also developing two other compounds for antiviral treatments, he said.
"I know at least three companies are negotiating with MU to have these compounds licensed," Singh said.
“Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant: Unique features and their impact on pre-existing antibodies” was recently published in Journal of Autoimmunity. Funding for the study was from the Bond Life Sciences Center, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and the National Strategic Research Institute at the University of Nebraska.
This article originally appeared on Columbia Daily Tribune: University of Missouri research focuses on COVID-19 omicron variant