Reports emerged this weekend that a new Covid strain – branded “Deltacron” – had been discovered in a lab in Cyrpus, but experts have responded with scepticism, saying contamination is the most likely explanation for the so-called variant
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Scientists have poured water on claims that a new variant combining the Delta and Omicron Covid strains has emerged – saying contamination is likely to blame.
Reports emerged this weekend that a new Covid strain – branded “Deltacron” – had been discovered in a lab in Cyprus.
But sceptical experts said this is unlikely to be the case – with a World Health Organisation scientist emphatically stating “Deltacron” “is not real”.
Imperial College virologist Dr Tom Peacock is among the experts saying the anomaly appears to be “quite clearly contamination” as it does not meet the criteria for a new variant.
And World Health Organisation (WHO) Covid expert Dr Krutika Kuppalli posted on Twitter : “Deltacron is not real and is likely due to sequencing artifact (lab contamination of Omicron sequence fragments in a Delta specimen).
“Let’s not merge of names of infectious diseases and leave it to celebrity couples.”
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The response from the scientific community came after Leondios Kostrikis, professor of biological sciences at the University of Cyprus, said his team had discovered 25 Covid samples which appeared to combine the Delta and Omicron strains.
He told reporters: “There are currently omicron and delta co-infections and we found this strain that is a combination of these two.”
It sparked a huge response on social media, with “Deltacron” trending for much of the weekend, but experts are not convinced.
Dr Peacock wrote in response: “The Cypriot ‘Deltacron’ sequences reported by several large media outlets look to be quite clearly contamination – they do not cluster on a phylogenetic tree and have a whole Artic primer sequencing amplicon of Omicron in an otherwise Delta backbone.”
In a lengthy Twitter thread debunking the “variant”, he said: “Delta sequences with strange mutations in amplicon 72 have been turning up for ages (for example Delta + Mu NTD insertion) however, they always show this non-monophyletic pattern and are nearly always more easily explained by this primer issue exacerbating very low-level contam.”
Global health expert Dr Boghuma Kabisen Titanji posted on Twitter: “On the #Deltacron story, just because I have been asked about it many times in the last 24h, please interpret with caution.
She added: “The best thing we can do besides worrying about it and coining variant names that sound like a “Transformers” villain, is ensuring that vaccines are available to everyone and combining vaccination with other strategies that give the virus fewer opportunities to spread.”
Prof Martin Michaelis, Professor of Molecular Medicine at the University of Kent, told The Mirror that it is not yet clear whether the samples are real, or the rest of a sequencing error or contamination.
He said: “As far as I can tell, researchers from Cyprus have sequenced samples of SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, and received genomic sequences that combine features of the Omicron and Delta variants.
“It is not yet clear whether this is real or a sequencing error or the consequence of contamination.
“If different viruses from different SARS-CoV-2 variants are analysed on the same machines, you can get sequences that look as if they are from a new virus but are in reality just a mixture of different viruses.
“Hence, we have to wait for what further investigations will show. In any case, “Deltacron” is not an official name.”
But he warned that if two viruses infect the same cell, there is potential for strains to combine – meaning a hybrid variant is formed.
Prof Michaelis continued: “Coronaviruses including SARS-CoV-2 have in principle the ability to recombine their genetic material if two viruses infect the same cell.
“Therefore, it is possible that if someone is simultaneously infected with an Omicron and a Delta variant virus that new hybrid viruses emerge that carry a new combination of the features of the two original viruses.
“With high levels of Omicron and Delta transmission at the same time, such hybrid viruses may be formed at some point.”
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.