Clever coronavirus: Spike mutations help Omicron dodge antibodies

Research findings can help developers of vaccines, treatments understand what part of novel coronavirus to target    

By Nandita Banerji
Published: Tuesday 19 July 2022

A study has identified specific mutations within the spike proteins of the novel coronavirus that help Omicron subvariants evade antibodies. These antibodies can be from vaccines or previous COVID-19 infections. 

Researchers at University of Missouri, United States conducted the study, which was published in International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 

The findings can help developers of COVID-19 treatments and vaccines consider which parts of the virus to target going forward to produce the most effective outcomes.

The researchers analysed protein sequences from more than 10 million Omicron-related coronavirus samples collected since November 2021 from around the world. 

Several cases of COVID-19 infection have been reported, despite people having received booster doses. 

Kamlendra Singh, a professor at University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine and Christopher S Bond, Life Sciences Center principal investigator, collaborated with Saathvik Kannan from Hickman High School in Columbia and MU undergraduate student Austin Spratt. 

The virus has continued to get smarter throughout the pandemic, Singh said. “Even with vaccines, it continues to find new ways to mutate and evade existing antibodies,” he said. 

“Omicron now has more than 130 sublineages,” he added. “We are now finally able to detect and differentiate among them with this research. Our research shows how the virus has evolved over time.” 

New variants and their sub-lineages will continue to evolve as the pandemic progresses, Singh said. Additionally, investigators are beginning to see individuals infected with a combination of two variants, such as Delta and Omicron variants, simultaneously.

“Vaccinated individuals or those that have previously tested positive may have the antibodies for one variant but not necessarily for other variants,” Singh said. “The mutations may seem like only subtle differences, but they are very important.”

Similar to the influenza virus, the coronavirus is likely never going to vanish from society, the researcher said. 

But new vaccines can be developed to target the virus’ most up-to-date version. However, with how rapidly the coronavirus has been mutating, the vaccines may become less effective over time.

“The ultimate solution going forward will likely be the development of small molecule, antiviral drugs that target parts of the virus that do not mutate,” Singh said. 

“While there is no vaccine for HIV, there are very effective antiviral drugs that help those infected live a healthy life, so hopefully, the same can be true with COVID-19,” he suggested. 

Singh has tested positive for COVID-19 multiple times himself. He also helped develop CoroQuil-Zn, a supplement that can be taken while infected with COVID-19 to help reduce one’s viral load. 

The supplement, which is currently being used by patients in India, south-east Asia and Great Britain, is awaiting FDA approval for use in the United States.


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