Toronto: A team of researchers, including an Indian-origin scientist at the prestigious University of British Columbia, has become the first in the world to conduct a molecular-level structural analysis of the Omicron spike protein, which could help accelerate the development of more effective treatments against the variant.
Spike protein helps the virus enter and infect cells.
Dr Sriram Subramaniam, professor in UBC faculty of medicine’s department of biochemistry and molecular biology, said that Omicron has greater binding affinity than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus, with levels more comparable to what seen with the Delta variant.
The findings, published in the Science journal, sheds new light on why Omicron is highly transmissible and will help accelerate the development of more effective treatments, according to a statement issued by the Vancouver-based university.
The analysis, done at near atomic resolution using a cryo-electron microscope, reveals how the heavily mutated variant infects human cells and is highly evasive of immunity, Dr. Subramaniam discussed the implications of his team’s research and underlined that “vaccination remains our best defense against the Omicron variant.”
The findings show strong antibody evasion and binding with human cells that contribute to increased transmissibility, and that vaccination remains the best defense, the university said.
Dr Subramaniam said: “the Omicron variant is unprecedented for having 37 spike protein mutations, that’s three to five times more mutations than any other variant we’ve seen.”
He said it is remarkable that the Omicron variant evolved to retain its ability to bind with human cells efficiently despite such extensive mutations.
“Our experiments confirm what we’re seeing in the real world, that the Omicron spike protein is far better than other variants at evading monoclonal antibodies that are commonly used as treatments, as well as at evading the immunity produced by both vaccines and natural infection,” he said.
These are the underlying mechanisms fueling the variant’s rapid spread and why Omicron could become the dominant variant of SARS-CoV-2 very quickly, he said.
“The good news is that knowing the molecular structure of the spike protein will allow us to develop more effective treatments against Omicron and related variants in the future. Understanding how the virus attaches to and infects human cells means we can develop treatments that disrupt that process and neutralize the virus.”