Written by By Erin Freie and Breanne Fleer, CNN
The Omicron variant of the influenza virus — a new flu strain that emerged during the spring of 2018 — is not particularly dangerous to humans or a threat to mankind in general. But it is a significant threat to poultry.
The main culprit is a combination of genetic mutations that hijack the bird flu virus’ hemagglutinin (H) protein and, by combining it with an amino acid (HA) that it lacks, alters the virus’ ability to spread. The change is no different from taking a perfectly good tomato and replacing the bacterial or mammalian hemagglutinin, using a much smaller gene. It has the same effect on a virus, making it capable of more rapidly transmitting from one person to another.
While the basic gene editing technology used to create the new strain is the same as used for genetically engineering crops like corn and rice, in this case, its designer was a boy working on behalf of the World Health Organization. Over the course of nearly 100 days this year, 11-year-old Jeremy Martens edited a few genes of the strains of H5N1 and H7N9 flu, further altering the two strains to better match the new way it spreads in birds.
This was just one of dozens of flu viruses around the world modified in this way. The researchers say the mutation is likely to be a threat to humans, just like the strains that Martens used to outfox modern surveillance systems and keep the real reason for the mutating virus hidden from scientists — and him.
The World Health Organization’s high-risk recommendations for this strain have been adapted for the H5N1 variant. The new strain doesn’t cause too much concern, but the WHO has not declared it an avian flu pandemic strain of concern.