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Fact Check-Omicron is not the common cold ‘rebranded’

The Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant is not the same virus that causes the common cold, contrary to claims online.

These misleading reports appear to be based on a misreading of a study on Omicron’s origins and by early reports suggesting that its symptoms might be relatively mild.

Examples of the false reports are viewable ( here ), ( here ). “So basically they've taken the common cold and renamed it Omicron....mmmk,” one Facebook user wrote ( here ). “Omicron is a variant of the common cold,” says another ( here ).

Some users making this claim ( here ), ( here ) are referring to media reports about a pre-print study on the Omicron variant.

The study, yet to be peer-reviewed, said the variant likely acquired at least one of its mutations by picking a snippet of genetic information from another virus - possibly one that causes the common cold (known as HCoV-229E) - present in the same infected cells ( here ), ( osf.io/f7txy ).

This does not mean the Omicron variant has “mutated into the common cold,” or that it is “genetically the same as the common cold,” as claimed online.

Contacted by Reuters, Venky Soundararajan of Cambridge, Massachusetts-based data analytics firm nference, who led the study in question, confirmed such allegations are inaccurate.

“The Omicron SARS-CoV-2 variant is significantly distinct from seasonal coronaviruses (HCoV) that cause the common cold, despite both these viruses sharing the small 9-nucleotide insertion identified by our study,” he said via email.

“Further, there are hundreds of regions in the human genome that are also identical to the 9-nucleotide insertion on Omicron. Hence, either viral or host (human) recombination processes may have led to the evolution of Omicron’s novel insertion mutation, as articulated by our study.”

As previously explained by Reuters ( here ), ( here ), while the common cold is a respiratory illness like COVID-19, it is caused by a different virus.

Rhinoviruses are the most common cause of the common cold ( here ). Common human coronaviruses can also cause common colds in people ( here ), ( here ), but these are not considered as dangerous as the coronaviruses that turned into severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus (SARS-CoV) in 2002, Middle East respiratory syndrome coronavirus (MERS-CoV) in 2012 and now the 2019 coronavirus disease (2019-nCoV).

In its latest weekly epidemiological report, the WHO said more data is needed to assess the severity of disease caused by Omicron, the fifth variant of concern of the coronavirus, and whether its many mutations might reduce protection from vaccine-derived immunity ( here ).

It is true that the available information from early patients infected with Omicron, suggested the symptoms of the variant are mild ( here ), but it is still being studied to see if it is more contagious or causes more severe illness than other variants and experts warn it could take weeks to know these answers ( here ), ( here ), ( here ).

“We need to carefully monitor the real-world evidence over the coming months to truly understand the clinical implications of the mutations observed on Omicron’s spike protein,” Soundararajan said.

VERDICT

False. The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is not the same as the viruses that cause the common cold.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here.

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