If you thought it was the name of a new Transformers movie, think again.
“Deltacron” started making headlines earlier in January, as an alleged hybrid between two COVID-19 variants.
Announced by a University of Cyprus researcher, the hybrid was a reported cross between Omicron and Delta that had allegedly infected 25 people, putting 11 in hospital.
“It was basically a viral sequence that contained a spike protein that looked a lot like Omicron … but was otherwise a Delta,” Angela Rasmussen, a virologist with the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO), told Global News over Zoom.
She says that quickly turned out not to be true, though.
The genome sequence for Deltacron was uploaded to an international database accessible to scientists around the world.
Upon inspection, multiple researchers said the sequence appears to be a “contamination,” “lab error” or “artifact,” where a highly sensitive sequencing machine accidentally picked up traces of another virus in the room and began to sequence that genome instead.
Scientists could tell right away because they’ve seen this error before, according to Sarah Otto.
“That contamination, it has happened all over the world again and again,” said Otto, co-lead of the computational biology and modelling pillar at CoVaRR-Net.
“It is very well-known in this particular region of the genome, because Omicron is so well-known for this.”
Otto says another clue is that, had it actually been a newly formed hybrid, multiple parts of its genome would have similar-looking sequences. But they didn’t.
As a matter of fact, Rasmussen and Otto say Omicron would have no business fusing with Delta anyway, because it already has most of the mutations that the other variant possesses.
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How probable is it for variants to fuse?
It certainly can happen, both scientists say, and it has happened before.
It’s called “recombination” — when two viruses coinfect the same host and exchange genetic information. It’s possible in both humans and animals, and between two different variants or two different viruses, such as COVID-19 and influenza.
The catch? Recombination doesn’t mean the birth of a super-elite, incredibly indestructible, science-defying virus.
“More often than not, this results in virus that is not as good at being a virus. It can’t replicate as well, if at all,” said Rasmussen.
There’s evidence this occurred in New York, where a patient was infected with both the Alpha and Epsilon variants, but the resulting recombinant never spread to anyone else.
Either way, the window for recombination to occur is “rapidly closing,” Rasmussen says, because Omicron is dominating infections, making it more difficult for someone to get infected with Delta, let alone both.
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Should we be concerned by this “theoretical” threat? Otto and Rasmussen say no, as there’s no concrete evidence that Deltacron had spread to multiple people.
But that doesn’t mean scientists like those at CoVaRR-Net, VIDO or the University of Cyprus shouldn’t be on the lookout.
“I’m glad that they were looking for recombination events. That’s something that we need to pay attention to,” said Otto.
So what’s in the name?
While Deltacron may not pose a threat, health official says its name might.
In May 2021, the WHO announced that key COVID-19 variants will be named after letters of the Greek alphabet. If it isn’t already obvious, “Deltacron” does not follow this system.
This prompted officials to speak out against the seemingly misleading term, suggesting it could make the public believe two variants had combined.
“Names like that, they’re designed to incite attention,” said Fatima Tokhmafshan, community and patient engagement and outreach co-ordinator for CoVaRR-Net.
“You’re sensationalizing the science, and what might have been discovered. That’s the usual logic that comes with those types of fancy, not very scientifically accurate names.”
Tokhmafshan told Global she was getting “messages, emails, DM’s, from people being really really worried.”
“Even journalists in the media were quite concerned, thinking, ‘This is it. This is the big one.’”
A sociolinguistics researcher in Michigan is not surprised.
“We’ve seen (these terms) can have some detrimental effects,” said Kelly E. Wright.
“We’re certainly in a time where we’ve seen that misinformation can really take off. So people I think are being very careful, especially government organizations, about how they describe particular variants.”
New COVID-19 terminology (or #CoronaSpeak, as one expert calls it) has been flooding our everyday conversations since the pandemic began — a phenomenon that is not at all surprising, says Wright, and “something you cannot contain.”
Whether it’s dubbing the pandemic the “panoramic” and the “panini,” or coming up with terms like “moronavirus,” “locky d,” “covidiot” or “the rona,” the public is showing no signs of stopping.
“Everyone is experiencing the pandemic together, so we’re all making new words at the same time. It’s very fascinating,” Wright said.
Such language changes, Wright says, have the power to unite people — just like a shared anthem could help bring forward a social movement.
But a term like “Deltacron” may do the opposite of unify.
Tokhmafshan says it incites panic, where the public begins to disbelieve in the efficacy of vaccines against this perceived threat as they slowly move away from following public health measures.
It could even turn to a boy-who-cried-wolf scenario, where the public gets desensitized from constant false alarms on presumed variants, that they shrug things off when a real one is discovered.
Even further – “deltacron” may create a distraction from the real danger, “which is original recipe Omicron, and the threat that it poses to our hospitals and our health-care system.”
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