A new coronavirus mutation that contains the backbone of the Delta variant but the spike-part of the Omicron variant has been discovered in several countries. The variant, which could have the severity of the Delta variant and could spread like the Omicron variant, was to be expected, researchers say, but is concerning nonetheless.
What is Deltacron
The Delta variant proved to be substantially more severe than the Alpha variant, which itself was more severe than the original strains observed in Wuhan. When the extremely contagious Omicron variant emerged, we were fortunate that it did not carry the same severity as Delta — since, if it was similarly severe, it would have undoubtedly caused much more trouble (which is not to say that it’s not problematic enough as it is).
Unfortunately, although many more people are vaccinated than a year or even a few months ago, the virus is still spreading like wildfire, and the more the virus circulates, the higher the risk of mutation.
In this case, the hybrid variant was formed through a process called recombination: when a patient is infected simultaneously with two different strains of the same virus, and the strains end up exchanging genetic material and creating new types of viral structures. The discovery of a virus formed thusly is described in a yet-not-peer-reviewed paper published in medRxiv.
Where has Deltacron been detected
The first reports of a “Deltacron variant” came in January, but researchers cautioned at the time that the new variant was unlikely to exist and was more likely a result of lab contamination. Now, the new variant seems to actually exist.
Gisaid, a global community of scientists that shares virus information, posted that this is “the first solid evidence for this variant”, shared by the Pasteur Institute in France. Already, the variant seems to have been detected in several countries.
“This recombinant virus identified in several regions of France has been circulating since early January 2022 and genomes with a similar profile have been also identified in Denmark and The Netherlands. Further investigations are needed to determine if these recombinants derive from a single common ancestor or could result from multiple similar recombination events,” the Gisaid post reads.
There have also been reports of Deltacron in the US, and about 30 cases have been detected in the UK, according to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Should you be worried
Something like this was likely to happen, researchers say. This is likely neither the first nor the last recombinant version of this virus. Still, this doesn’t mean that all is good now that it has happened.
“We have known that recombinant events can occur, in humans or animals, with multiple circulating variants of SARS-CoV-2,” Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, the chief scientist at the World Health Organization (WHO) wrote in a tweet
Maria van Kerkhove, the COVID-19 technical lead for the WHO, said this mutation was “to be expected, especially with intense circulation of Omicron & Delta”. She added that her team was “tracking and discussing” the variant.
So far, only a handful of cases have been detected, and we don’t know exactly how contagious, severe, or resistant to vaccines. It is very likely that booster vaccines are still very effective against it, though this has not been confirmed; still, it’s very likely that vaccination offers at least some protection from the new variant. Thankfully, we’re much more prepared for something like this than we were a year or even a few months ago.
Also, it seems rather unlikely that this variant can become dominant given that another Omicron subvariant seems to be around 30% more contagious than the original Omicron.
Mutations like this are likely to continue emerging as long as the virus is circulating freely in society. Currently, 63.6% of the world population has received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, although the rate is still very low in low-income countries, where only 14% of people have received at least one dose. Earlier this week, Pfizer’s CEO announced that we will likely need a fourth dose to stay safe in the front of the new variants.