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The Omicron variant has 32 mutations in its spike protein. What does that actually mean?

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With the news of the latest COVID-19 variant of concern, named Omicron, there is plenty of discourse around the ‘spike protein’ and ‘mutations’. Omicron has around 50 genetic changes, with 32 mutations in the spike protein.   

What is the spike protein? 

The spike protein is the part of the virus that binds to a human cell to infect it. The spike protein is actually the reason where coronavirus gets its name. The spike proteins on the virus resemble a crown, and that’s where we get corona (crown) virus. 

The vaccines train your body to recognise and destroy spike proteins. The mutations can cause the shape of the spike protein to change slightly, which is why the antibodies we produce from the vaccine might not recognise it anymore.

What are mutations? 

Mutations of the virus occur when there is a change to the virus’ genes. We know that Omicron has around 32 mutations in the spike protein alone — an unprecedented number of mutations in the variants so far.

It’s still unclear what all these mutations mean, and how our bodies will react, but due to the importance of the spike protein in vaccines, there is significant interest in understanding how the mutations alter the virus and whether our tools to fight it (the vaccine) still works. The mutations can cause the shape of the spike protein to change slightly, which is why the antibodies we produce from the vaccine might not recognise it anymore.

The change in shape can alter how tightly the spike protein binds to the cells it infects. The mutations could potentially mean the virus might be able to reproduce more effectively. Another possibility is that the variant also could be more transmissible as we saw with the Delta variant. It is too early to provide an assessment of the risks, and there is still a lot to learn about the nature of the mutations. 

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