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Vietnamese expert tells the story of ‘hunting’ hybrid mutants

AmericaBiologist Scott Nguyen, of the Medical Laboratory in Washington, found a mixed variant consisting of an Omicron head and a Delta body.

Scott Nguyen and many of his colleagues call themselves “mutant hunters.” They were tasked with tracking emerging strains around cities, searching for millions of nCoV gene sequences in a large international database called GISAID. The goal is to find dangerous strains that could change the course of a pandemic, or simply give scientists more knowledge about how viruses evolve.

For example, in November, a mutant hunter discovered a “very strange collection of mutations” of mutations in South Africa. “It ended up being an Omicron,” said Nguyen.

Then, one February morning, Nguyen discovered not one, but a whole new “class” of mutants. This variant combines the Delta and Omicron parts. The parts don’t come together randomly. Viruses appear to have optimal combinations, choosing the best trait from each variant to infect and evade immunity.

In particular, Mr. Nguyen found a strain that mostly contained the Delta component, but carried the Omicron spike protein. This is the part that helps the virus attach to human cells and start spreading.

“So he has the best part of Omicron which is spike protein, but his body is still Delta. This is the best way to describe the virus,” Nguyen said.

According to him, if a patient is infected with two strains of Omicron and Delta at the same time, a “monster strain” is likely to be born. It has an “Omicron shell and a Delta body”.

Until now, this very rare variant, which scientists temporarily referred to as Deltacron. It has been found in France, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, with some found in the US, UK and Brazil.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and national authorities continue to monitor the mutation. They demonstrated that the virus had selected the most effective parts and combined them into a “supervirus”. This process, called recombination, can produce the most deadly strains of flu.

A COVID-19 patient is treated at the Tor Vergata Hospital in Rome, Italy.  Photo: AP

A COVID-19 patient is treated at the Tor Vergata Hospital in Rome, Italy. Photo: AP

“Regular recombination viruses are the way to create an influenza pandemic. So we have to be very careful, monitoring the recombination process very, very closely,” said Dr. Mike Ryan from WHO.

Omicron spike protein helps viruses evade the human immune system, especially antibodies. Thus, the Deltacron mutant is essentially a Delta “wearing the Omicrcon invisibility cloak”.

“This is the type with the best features in the world. It’s surprising that a virus actually does this, and does it so well,” Nguyen said.

Shishi Luo, a biochemist at Helix, agrees with Scott Nguyen’s team’s explanation. Basically, a hybrid strain is created when a person is infected with both Delta and Omicron at the same time.

Luo and colleagues analyzed samples from 30,000 Americans infected with nCoV from November 2021 to February. They found 20 people coinfected with Omicron and Delta.

“Omicron spreads strongly around Christmas and New Year’s, when people meet often. Imagine, you go to a party with someone infected with Delta, then go somewhere else and come into contact with someone infected with Omicron,” Luo said. explain.

According to him, if two strains infect the same cell, the viruses can start to recombine. In essence, during the replication process, a mutant steals a piece of the gene from another mutant. So, Deltacron was born because Delta copied part of Omicron’s genetic code.

Collecting the genetic code instead of a single gene makes the virus more resilient, rapidly evolving into new versions that can evade immunity.

“This shows how much potential nCoV has to transform itself,” Luo said.

In fact, the phenomenon of recombination has occurred since the beginning of the Covid-19 infection. Last month, scientists at the University of Glasgow published a conjectural study of the origins of nCoV. Their analysis suggests that an animal at the Wuhan seafood market may have been infected with the two coronaviruses at the same time. These two viruses combine, creating nCoV as Omicron and Delta did to make Deltacron.

“In the early days of the pandemic, we thought nCoV didn’t mutate too much. But this virus surprised us in many ways. So we think recombinant strains (hybrid strains) provide interesting clues about how the virus evolved,” said Scott Nguyen.

Thu Linh (Based on NPR)

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