The mutation that allows the virus to evade the antibodies is not necessarily beneficial. For example, the spike protein can make the virus so unstable that it cannot attach quickly to a cell, but inside someone with a weakened immune system, the viruses may be able to present a new mutation that stabilizes the spike again.
Bond believed that similar mutations could accumulate over and over in the same person, until he developed an omicron variant of the spike protein with the right mix of mutations that allowed it to spread very well among healthy people.
“It certainly seems plausible,” said Sarah Otto, an evolutionary biologist at the University of British Columbia, who was not involved in the study, but said scientists still need to run experiments to rule out alternative explanations.
For example, the 13 spikes in the spike may not represent any benefit to the omicron. Alternatively, some other spike spike might be the reason for Omicron’s success, and it’s possible that those 13 spikes were wandering within the variant.
“I would be careful to interpret the data to indicate that all of these previously harmful mutations benefited from adaptation,” Otto concluded.
Bond also admitted that his hypothesis still has some loopholes. For example, it is not clear why, during chronic infection, Omicron could have gained an advantage from the new “bubble” method of reaching cells.
“We just lack imagination,” Bond said.
James Lloyd-Smith, a disease ecologist at the University of California, Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study, said the research revealed the difficulty of reconstructing the evolution of the virus, even if it appears recently. “Nature certainly does the thing that makes us humble,” he said.
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