Last month rumours were circulating of a new super version of COVID, a Delta Omicron hybrid variant, ominously named Deltacron. As exciting as that all sounds, many scientists are calling Deltacron a lab error caused by an accidental contamination of COVID samples (Kreier, 2022).
But this variant is still ringing very real alarm bells among South Africa’s health researchers and globally.
How did this all start?
On the 7th of January, the virologist Leondios Kostrikis announced on a local television show that his research team at the University of Cyprus in Nicosia had identified several COVID genomes that had parts of both the Delta and Omicron variants.
Named ‘Deltacron,’, by Kostrikis and his team, they uploaded 25 of these sequences to the popular public repository GISAID that evening, and another 27 sequences a few days later. On 8 January, the financial news outlet, Bloomberg, picked up the story, and Deltacron started trending.
Leondios Kostrikis, the biochemist from Cyprus who discovered Deltacron
What is a COVID Variant?
Variants or strains of viruses happen when there is a change / mutation to the virus’s genes (Johns Hopkins Article). It’s normal and expected for RNA viruses like the coronavirus to evolve and change over time (Johns Hopkins Article).
Why are scientists saying it’s fake news?
Kostrikis, the original scientist that discovered ‘deltacron’ says that the media has misunderstood him and that he never thought it was a combination of the two variants. Rather, he meant it was a variant that had characteristics of Delta & Omicron
Other researchers have also pointed out that even if the sequences aren’t the result of contamination, the mutations identified by Kostrikis team are not only found in the Omicron variant and have been found in other variants.
Cheryl Bennett, an official at the GISAID Foundation’s Washington DC office has said that, more than 7 million COVID-19 genomes have been uploaded to the GISAID database since January 2020, some sequencing mistakes should not come as a surprise.
There is still no clarity over whether Deltacron is a hybrid or not (WHO is yet to declare it as one)
What Evidence is There That It’s Real?
The health minister of Brazil has confirmed that there are 2 cases of Deltacron identified in their northern states and other cases have been confirmed in the US and Europe
Kostrikis has defended his findings and asserted that they are not a laboratory error
What is a hybrid virus?
Also known as recombinant viral hybrids (Müthe et al., 2009). Hybrids happen when two or more related viruses infect the same cell and swap some of their of genetic material (Foster et al., 2018). After this swap, the result is a new variant is born that is genetically different from their parent viruses (Foster et al., 2018).
But this doesn’t only happen between other viruses, as sometimes viruses can steal a little bit of the host’s (the person, animal or plant that has been infected) RNA (Foster et al., 2018).
So is it Possible for Deltacron to be a Hybrid?
Yes, RNA viruses like the coronavirus are particularly good at doing this swap with other variants because of the way they reproduce (Olena, 2021). RNA viruses are very adaptable in how they copy themselves to spread across a person’s body, and with delta and omicron circulating so widely it’s possible. Plus, there’s a lot of evidence that COVID-19 often shares genetic material between variants because of the way this kind of virus copies their RNA genomes.
Delta and omicron could have infected a person’s cells at the same time. When those cells start making new viruses, the new genetic material may be mixed up, which can make a new, hybrid virus.
But it’s important to note that most of these hybrids wouldn’t work. Deltacron would have to have been a special case. So is Deltacron a recombinant hybrid virus? Maybe, we’ll get a solid answer from scientists soon.
Here you can see what the making of a hybrid would look like. If Deltacron was a hybrid, it would have been from a situation like this. A person’s cells would have been infected by Delta and Omicron at the same time. When the viruses were copying themselves to spread across the body, they could have copied a little of the RNA
So Is It Time to Worry?
Not yet, at this point nothing is confirmed. Also, a lot of scientists are saying this variant hybrid or not is super rare. So keep an eye out, but don’t panic.
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