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The omicron variant may have developed in immunocompromised people, expert says

Scientists have a new theory about where the omicron variant, and other COVID-19 variants, got their start

A COVID-19 patient gets treatment.
An intubated COVID-19 patient gets treatment at the intensive care unit at the Westerstede Clinical Center, a military-civilian hospital in Westerstede, northwest Germany, Friday, Dec. 17, 2021
Martin Meissner, Associated Press

The omicron variant is becoming the most dominant coronavirus strain in the entire world — and now scientists are trying to figure out why it developed.

Scientists in South Africa have started to investigate the “highly plausible hypothesis” that COVID-19 variants — like the omicron variant — got their start in people who were infected by COVID-19 but had immune systems weakened by other medical issues, such as untreated HIV, according to BBC News.

  • So far, researchers know that COVID-19 can live in some HIV-positive people who have not taken their medicines.

The theory goes that the coronavirus will infect some immunocompromised people and linger within them for a period of time. As time goes on, the virus begins to mutate and change to become something stronger.

  • “Normally your immune system would kick a virus out fairly quickly, if fully functional,” Linda-Gayle Bekker, a professor who leads the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation in Cape Town, South Africa, told BBC News.
  • “In someone where immunity is suppressed, then we see virus persisting. And it doesn’t just sit around, it replicates. And as it replicates it undergoes potential mutations. And in somebody where immunity is suppressed that virus may be able to continue for many months — mutating as it goes,” she added.

Still, there’s a lot of research needed into the omicron variant to see where it came from. Per Reuters, the variant likely picked up a snippet of genetic code often seen in the common cold. This is why the common cold and the omicron variant have symptoms so similar to each other.

Researchers are trying to figure out how infectious the omicron variant is and how much severe illness it can cause. Right now, early research suggests the omicron variant can cause less severe symptoms, especially if you’re fully vaccinated with a booster against the coronavirus, as I wrote for the Deseret News.