Variant of Covid or “scary”? Experts warn that a future “Deltacron” is possible

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Health experts have questioned reports of a possible Covid-19 mutation combining elements of the Delta and Omicron variants. While evidence on “Deltacron” remains scarce, French virologists warn that the emergence of such hybrid strains is a distinct possibility.

Discussions of a possible new hybrid variant named after a B-movie about the Hollywood disaster have spread like wildfire on social media over the weekend, leaving behind the now-usual trail of conspiracy theories. and black humor. While some prominent scientists have rushed to warn of the risk of peddling disinformation, others have argued that endemic variants make the threat of such mutant strains all too real.

The controversy began on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, currently plagued by the highest Covid-19 infection rate in Europe, where a local team of scientists last week claimed to have discovered the new variant. Led by Leondios Kostrikis, professor of biological sciences at the University of Cyprus, the scientists said the new strain exhibited Omicron-like genetic signatures in Delta genomes – hence the name ‘Deltacron’.

Kostrikis told the local daily Cyprus Times that his team had found 25 cases of the mutation, including 11 cases among patients hospitalized with Covid-19. He noted a “higher frequency of mutations in hospitalized patients, which may suggest a correlation between Deltacron and hospitalizations”. He added that it was too early to assess how contagious or dangerous the apparent new strain would become.

Variant or “scary”?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 genetic details of “Deltacron”. Initial reactions were skeptical at best, with leading experts suggesting that the apparent new strain looks more like a “scariante” – an unconfirmed strain causing global fear – than a variant.

While it is possible for coronaviruses to genetically fuse together, a process known as biological recombination, experts noted that the suspected mutations identified by the Cypriot team were located on a part of the genome that is vulnerable to errors in some sequencing procedures.

“The Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several mainstream media appear to be quite clearly contamination,” tweeted Tom Peacock, a virologist in the infectious diseases department at Imperial College London this weekend. In other words, according to Peacock, the new strain reported was most likely the result of a lab error, mixing samples from patients infected with Omicron and others with Delta.

Small update: Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several mainstream media appear to be quite clearly a contamination – they do not cluster on a phylogenetic tree and have an entire arctic primer sequencing amplicon from Omicron in a backbone otherwise Delta.

– Tom Peacock (@PeacockFlu) January 8, 2022 Kostrikis quickly hit back, telling Bloomberg News Agency in an emailed statement that the cases he identified “indicate evolutionary pressure on an ancestral strain to acquire these mutations and not the result of a single recombination event. “

He pointed to at least one sequence from Israel deposited in a global database that exhibits the genetic characteristics of the hybrid variant, adding: “These findings refute undocumented claims that the deltacron is the result of a technical error.

‘Perfectly possible’Since the start of the pandemic, scientists have struggled to counter a deluge of disinformation about Covid-19, much of which is circulating online. Last week, unverified reports of a “flurona” or “flurone” virus – a combination of influenza and coronavirus – which the World Health Organization (WHO) dismissed on Monday.

In this context, is it not surprising that the announcement of a “Deltacron” has been greeted with caution and skepticism by scientists. But according to Christian Bréchot, head of the Global Virus Network and former director of the Institut Pasteur, there is “no reason to question the quality of the work of the Cypriot team”.

Of course, “from a technical point of view, it is important to ensure that no artefacts [editor’s note: lab contamination] mistakenly suggests cases of recombination, ”Bréchot told AXADLETM, adding that“ more data will be needed to confirm the new variant ”.

“In principle, a recombination of different variants is perfectly possible. This is true of viruses in general and coronaviruses in particular, ”he said. “Once you have a high level of circulation of two variants, the likelihood of them recombining is greatly increased. And it wouldn’t be the first time this kind of mutation has occurred.

Threat of future “Deltacrons”Such a scenario is indeed perfectly possible, estimates the virologist Christine Rouzioux, professor emeritus at the University of Paris-Descartes, while underlining the need for more data on the particular case of “Deltacron”.

“It is still too early to draw any conclusions [on ‘Deltacron’]”, She confided to AXADLETM.” You must first check the sequencing and then analyze the results on a cluster of cases. But in theory, the combination is perfectly possible.

Whether or not this particular new strain is confirmed, the emergence in the future of such hybrid variants remains a possibility, Bréchot warned: “As long as the variants continue to thrive in the world, we will be at the mercy of this type of. development. […] This situation is further proof that a strategy based on preferential access to vaccines in rich countries is doomed to failure.

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“Delta appears to be from India and Omicron is probably from South Africa. Now we hear about Deltacron in Cyprus. It is obvious that national strategies alone cannot work, ”added Bréchot. “It is imperative that we define a comprehensive strategy, based on immunizing people around the world. “

This article has been translated from the original into French.

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