Immune system vs. virus: Why omicron had experts worried from the start

Illustration of antibodies responding to an infection of SARS-CoV-2.

Enlarge / Illustration of antibodies responding to an infection of SARS-CoV-2. (credit: Getty Images/Kateryna Kon/Science Photo Library)

Right from omicron’s first description, researchers were concerned about the variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Looking over the list of mutations it carried, scientists could identify a number that would likely make the variant more infectious. Other mutations were even more worrying, as they would likely interfere with the immune system’s ability to recognize the virus, allowing it to pose a risk to those who had been vaccinated or suffered from previous infections.

Buried in the subtext of these worries was a clear implication: Scientists could simply look at the sequence of amino acids in the spike protein of a coronavirus and get a sense of how well the immune system would respond to it.

That knowledge is based on years of studying how the immune system operates, combined with a lot of specific information regarding its interactions with SARS-CoV-2. What follows is a description of these interactions, along with their implications for viral evolution and present and future variants.

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