Cypriot scientists are defending their assertion that a new COVID-19 strain, combining characteristics of the Delta and Omicron variants, has emerged in Cyprus.
Dr Leondios Kostrikis, head of the University of Cyprus’ Laboratory of Biotechnology and Molecular Virology, refuted claims that his team’s findings resulted from lab contamination.
In an emailed statement to Bloomberg on Sunday, Kostrikis said the cases he has identified “indicate an evolutionary pressure to an ancestral strain to acquire these mutations and not a result of a single recombination event.”
He argued: “Deltacron infection is higher among patients hospitalized for Covid-19 than among non-hospitalized patients so that rules out the contamination hypothesis”.
“What’s more, the samples were processed in multiple sequencing procedures in more than one country.
“And at least one sequence from Israel deposited in a global database exhibits genetic characteristics of Deltacron.”
Viral genes determine the forms of proteins that perform several specific tasks.
Omicron and Delta each have mutations in the spike protein that affect their ability to enter human cells, with Omicron becoming more infectious as a result.
Scientists abroad have said, although they would expect that recombinant forms of viruses can arise when there are multiple variants of a pathogen circulating, it is too soon for such a mutation.
This is the view of Nick Loman, a microbial genomics professor at England’s University of Birmingham who studies the coronavirus.
“While a recombinant form of delta and omicron wouldn’t be a complete surprise, the finding from Cyprus is more likely a “technical artefact” that arose in the process of sequencing the viral genome.”
Dr Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial Department of Infectious Disease in Britain, said in a tweet on Saturday that it could be contamination.
“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.”
News of the Deltacron’s discovery comes as the World Health Organization (WHO) revealed that nearly 10 million fresh COVID infections were reported across the globe in the past week, fuelled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.
Health Minister Michael Hadjipantelas said the new variant isn’t of concern, and more details will be given at a news conference this week.
Kostrikis also said the variant is not of concern as it will not replace the highly transmissible Omicron, taking a grip of the island.