DOCTOR'S NOTE | AL JAZEERA
(AL JAZEERA) — During the past week, my inbox has been flooded with messages telling me a new COVID-19 variant had been discovered in Cyprus. Dubbed “Deltacron”, it was said to be responsible for a series of hospitalisations in the country.
I groaned at the thought of a new variant and one that was said to be a combination of the Delta and Omicron variants sounded ominous. So, I decided to do some digging.
I discovered that the news had first emerged on January 7, when scientists at the University of Cyprus Laboratory of Biotechnology and Molecular Virology, led by Dr Leondios Kostrikis, claimed they had encountered a new variant of the SARS-COV-2 virus. It had, they said, already infected at least 25 people. According to Dr Kostrikis, the variant contained Omicron-like genetic signatures within Delta genomes – hence the name “Deltacron”.
Cyprus’s health minister, Michalis Hadjipandelas, was quick to point out that the new variant was not something to be concerned about at that point and that the sequence had been sent to GISAID, an open access database that tracks developments in the coronavirus.
The discovery of the new variant started trending on Twitter, but experts immediately advised caution. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) COVID-19 expert, Dr Krutika Kuppalli, explained on Twitter that there was no such thing as “Deltacron” and that this was likely a “lab contamination of Omicron fragments in a Delta specimen”.
Other scientists soon chimed in, and the overriding opinion was that this was not a new variant but most likely a case of laboratory contamination. The mutations did not appear to have a recombinant pattern, they explained, suggesting that Omicron and Delta had not merged their genetic material, despite both circulating widely.
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College London, said some sort of contamination in the lab had likely led to an error in the interpretation of the genetic sequence and explained that such errors were not uncommon in laboratories.
But while “Deltacron” may not be here, it is, theoretically, possible for two coronavirus variants that are circulating at the same time to cross over and form a recombinant version of both variants. If someone is infected with both variants simultaneously, then there is a small chance that both can infect a human cell at the same time. This increases the chances of their genetic material – RNA – becoming mixed as they begin to multiply and divide inside the cells. In such a case, the new recombinant variant would include genetic material from both variants.
Thankfully, this does not appear to have happened yet, but it is not impossible. The best way to reduce the chances of variants merging to form recombinant variants is to drive down community infection numbers. The focus has to go beyond the scope of vaccines only, although vaccinating the world is incredibly important other measures are needed. A key step would be to ensure there is clean air indoors through filtration and purification measures. It will reduce the number of virus particles in the air and decrease the chances of people picking it up. It will also help if all public health bodies across the world robustly recommend the use of FFP2 or N95 masks which filter out virus-containing aerosol particles more effectively than cloth or surgical masks.
By implementing these measures we could see a clear drop in circulating virus and significantly lessen the chances of a recombinant variant forming.
Recently, another term merging two words – flu and coronavirus – has emerged. “Flurona” refers to cases where somebody is infected with COVID-19 and flu at the same time. It is not a distinct disease, so while the names may have been merged in the term “Flurona”, the viruses themselves have not merged.
Flu and SARS-Cov-2 are two distinct viruses that cause two different illnesses, however, because of the way the viruses are structured and how they enter cells it is possible to be infected simultaneously with both viruses. If this happens, the infected person can have symptoms of both but the viruses themselves will not merge to form a new virus.
Instances of people being infected with flu and COVID-19 at the same time have been reported in Israel, the US, Hungary, the Philippines and Brazil. Cases of simultaneous infections from both viruses were reported as far back as February 2020, before the term itself was coined.
The fact that we are becoming more aware of it now may be a result of increased mixing. The lockdown restrictions and social distancing measures imposed in many countries during the earlier stages of the pandemic led to lower rates of flu and other infections. But as countries have started to open up in a bid to save their economies, even as the highly contagious Omicron variant circulates, the usual infections such as colds and flu have begun circulating again.
While scientists know it is possible to develop COVID-19 and influenza at the same time, it is too early to determine exactly how sick “Flurona” could make people and it is also unclear how much flu is circulating due to a lack of routine testing for the virus. However, we do know that older people and those with underlying health conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and conditions which weaken the immune system, are at greater risk from either virus.
Getting vaccinated against both is the best way to protect yourself from “Flurona”. You will need both the flu and COVID-19 vaccines as they are two different viruses and being vaccinated against one will not protect you from the other. You can even have both at the same time, in fact that is what I did, having my COVID-19 booster in one arm and the flu jab in the other.
Good News: IHU Variant not spreading
The variant, which has been given the name IHU or B.1.640.2 was first detected in France at the end of last year and is known to have 46 separate mutations that are being monitored for vaccine escape and increased transmissibility.
The variant has already been defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a “variant under monitoring”.
IHU variant is named after Institut Hospitalier Universitaire, the place where the cases were first detected. The individual who was identified as having the first case of this variant was originally from Cameroon, and was said to be fully vaccinated. In total, 12 people were infected with the IHU variant and all of them had travelled from destinations linked to the index case.
Scientists have begun looking at the mutations associated with B.1.640 and do not think it is likely to be as transmissible as Omicron and hence is unlikely to spread to greater numbers of people as it will be outcompeted by Omicron easily. While researchers were concerned about how the number of mutations would affect the variant’s transmissibility, it hasn’t been detected outside the southern Alps region of France and given that it has been three months since the first case was detected, this would suggest it is not highly transmissible. We are only hearing about it now as the genome sequencing is similar to Omicron.
Although they are continuing to monitor it for its ability to evade the protection offered by vaccines, the world’s focus remains on Omicron, and rightly so.
While some experts have said that they know too little about the B.1.640 variant to make assumptions about the exact course it will take, others believe that new variants are to be expected as COVID-19 continues to spread, this being one of them – and not all of them will gain the kind of traction seen with the Delta and the Omicron variants.
WHO continues to ask everyone to stay alert and take necessary precautions to avoid being infected with COVID-19, many of us will be used to following this advice by now: wearing a mask in indoor public spaces, social distancing and regular hand-washing.
Also, it is important that people take vaccinations as soon as possible to protect themselves from the virus.