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Omicron coronavirus variant has more than double the mutations of Delta, Italian lab image shows

·2 min read

Italian researchers have published the first image of the Covid-19 Omicron variant, confirming expectations that the new strain was a highly mutated version of the original coronavirus.

However, while its identification earlier this week has sparked worldwide alarm, the transmissibility of Omicron and the severity of illness it can cause have yet to be determined.

The image of the variant, published on Saturday, was derived from research carried out at the Bambino Gesu Hospital in Rome. The study was coordinated by Professor Carlo Federico Perno and supervised by Professor Claudia Alteri from the State University of Milan.

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The image displays the structure of the Omicron spike protein beside that of the Delta variant, revealing a far higher rate of mutation. The spike protein is the part of the virus crucial for it to enter human cells, and the part that a vaccine targets.

Scientists around the world have been scrambling for new information about the Omicron strain, first detected by scientists in South Africa and identified as a variant "of concern" on Friday by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Omicron cases have since been found in different parts of the world, including Botswana, Israel, Hong Kong and Belgium, sparking global concern and widespread travel curbs.

Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom all reported cases on Saturday.

Several European Union countries, the US, Hong Kong and Russia have already tightened restrictions on travellers from southern African countries.

Italy also reported its first Omicron case in Milan on Saturday - a traveller who had been to Mozambique.

The representation produced by the Italian researchers showed that the newest coronavirus variant had 43 spike protein mutations, compared to 18 for the Delta variant.

Previous research estimated that Omicron had 32 spike protein mutations, compared with the 13 to 17 seen in the more prevalent Delta variant.

These mutations are also concentrated in an area that interacts with human cells, according to the research.

However, "this does not automatically mean that these variations are more dangerous, simply that the virus has further adapted to the human species by generating another variant," Italian media quoted the researchers as saying.

"Further studies will tell us if this adaptation is neutral, less dangerous, or more dangerous."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.