Scientists in Cyprus have identified a new ‘Deltacron’ Covid strain in 25 patients that combines the Delta and Omicron variants.
Leonidos Kostrikis, professor of biological sciences at the University of Cyprus, said the strain has a similar genetic structure to Omicron with the genomes of Delta.
His team has identified 25 cases of the hybrid variant so far and it is still too early to assess its impact, Bloomberg reported.
Scientists in Cyprus have identified a new ‘Deltacron’ Covid strain in 25 patients that combines the Delta and Omicron variants. Pictured: a vaccination queue in Cyprus
Out of those identified, 11 of them were in patients already hospitalised with Covid and 14 were among the general public.
Kostrikis said: ‘We will see in the future if this strain is more pathological or more contagious or if it will prevail.’
The scientists have sent their findings to GISAID, an international database that tracks viruses.
Covid infections normally only involve one mutant strain, but in extremely rare cases two can strike at the same time.
If these also infect the same cell, they may be able to swap DNA and combine to make a new version of the virus.
Last month, the boss of Moderna warned of a hybrid mutant that he feared would be even worse than the ones currently sweeping across the globe.
Dr Paul Burton, Moderna’s chief medical officer, warned of a new super-variant in December
Dr Paul Burton, the vaccine maker’s chief medical officer, warned the high numbers of Delta and Omicron made the combination likely.
He told MPs on the Science and Technology Committee that it was ‘certainly’ possible they could swap genes and trigger an even more dangerous variant.
Researchers have warned that these events, scientifically called ‘recombination events’, are possible but they require very specific conditions and the coincidence of mostly uncontrollable events.
Only three Covid strains created by viruses swapping genes had previously been recorded, with the virus instead mostly relying on random mutations to make more variants.
A new variant was not triggered over the two months when the Delta strain was outcompeting Alpha through this method.
In one case a recombination event occurred in the UK when the Alpha variant merged with B.1.177, which first emerged in Spain, in late January 2021.
It led to 44 cases before eventually disappearing.
Scientists in California said they had identified another recombination variant in February last year, with the Kent strain merging with B.1.429 which was first spotted in the area.
This new strain also led to very few cases, and quickly disappeared.
Covid mostly relies on random mutations to develop new variants.
These happen when the virus makes copies of itself, and errors appear in its genes.
In most cases these changes are harmless, but occasionally they can trigger an advantage such as being more transmissible or better able to evade vaccines.
It is thought that the Omicron variant emerged in a lingering infection in an immunocompromised person. This allowed the virus to mutate several times to train itself to be better at infecting humans and evading previous immunity.
HOW CAN VIRUSES COMBINE?
For a combined variant of the virus to emerge, one person must be infected with two strains of the coronavirus – likely from two separate sources – at the same time, and then the viruses must bump into each other inside the body.
Once the viruses are inside the body, the way they spread is by forcing human cells to make more of them.
The coronavirus is made up of genetic material called RNA and, to reproduce, it must force the body to read this RNA and make exact copies of it.
There are inevitably errors when this happens because it happens so fast and so often and natural processes are imperfect.
If two viruses are in the same place at once, both being duplicated by the same cells, there is a chance the RNA genes could be mixed up, just as there could be a mix-up if someone dropped two packs of cards at once and picked them all up.
Most places have dominant variants of the virus so someone getting infected with two is unlikely to begin with.
And, for healthy people, there is likely only a window of around two weeks before the body starts to develop immunity and successfully clear out the first version of the virus.
This risk window could be cut to days for the majority of people who develop Covid symptoms – which takes an average of five days – and then stay at home sick.
But huge, poorly controlled outbreaks like the ones in the UK and US over the winter, significantly raise the risk of the combination events simply because the number of infections is higher.