Health experts have cast doubt on reports of a possible Covid-19 mutation combining elements of both the Delta and Omicron variants. While the evidence on “Deltacron” remains scarce, French virologists warn that the emergence of such hybrid strains is a distinct possibility.
Talk of a possible new hybrid variant with a name from a Hollywood disaster B-movie spread like wildfire on social media at the weekend, leaving behind the now customary trail of conspiracy theories and black humour. While some prominent scientists rushed to warn against the risk of peddling disinformation, others have argued that rampant variants make the threat of such mutant strains all too real.
The controversy kicked off on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, currently roiled by Europe’s highest Covid-19 rate of infection, where a local team of scientists claimed last week to have discovered the new variant. Led by Leondios Kostrikis, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Cyprus, the scientists said the new strain presented Omicron-like genetic signatures within the Delta genomes – hence the name “Deltacron”.
Kostrikis told local daily Cyprus Times his team had found 25 cases of the mutation, including 11 cases among patients hospitalised with Covid-19. He noted a “higher frequency of mutations among hospital patients, which may suggest a correlation between Deltacron and hospitalisations.” He added it was too early to assess how contagious or dangerous the apparent new strain would become.
The Cypriot team’s findings have been sent to GISAID, an international database that monitors and shares official data on Covid-19, giving other scientists access to the genetic details of “Deltacron”. Initial reactions have been sceptical at best, with prominent experts suggesting the apparent new strain looks more like a “scariant” – an unconfirmed strain causing a global scare – than a variant.
While it is possible for coronaviruses to genetically merge, a process known as biological recombination, experts noted that the alleged mutations identified by the Cypriot team were located on a part of the genome that is vulnerable to error in certain sequencing procedures.
“The Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several large media outlets look to be quite clearly contamination,” Tom Peacock, a virologist with the infectious diseases department at Imperial College London, tweeted at the weekend. In other words, according to Peacock, the reported new strain was most likely the result of a lab error, mixing samples from patients infected by Omicron and others by Delta.
Kostrikis promptly hit back, telling Bloomberg news agency in an emailed statement that the cases he identified “indicate an evolutionary pressure to an ancestral strain to acquire these mutations and not a result of a single recombination event.”
He pointed to at least one sequence from Israel deposited in a global database that exhibits genetic characteristics of the hybrid variant, adding: “These findings refute the undocumented statements that deltacron is a result of a technical error.”
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