Usually, contracting Covid-19 is associated with only one variant, but in rare cases, people can contract the infection from different sources at the same time. If the variants infect the same cell, they can swap DNA and form a new version of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Dr Paul Burton warns that the number of Delta and Omicron variant infections currently skyrocketing in the UK makes this dire scenario likely.
A new super variant could emerge if Omicron and Delta infect the same person at the same time. Illustration: Getty
Speaking before the Science and Technology Committee, Mr Burton said the process could “certainly” happen and lead to the emergence of a variant that poses a greater risk than previous variants.
Experts say this process, known as “recombination”, is possible but requires specific conditions and the coincidence of uncontrollable circumstances.
To date, only 3 variants of SARS-CoV-2 generated by the transgenic virus have been documented. Instead, viruses often rely on random mutations to generate new variants. During the 2 months when the Delta variant circulated alongside the Alpha variant, no new variants were formed.
Currently, the Omicron variant is spreading in the UK, just 2 weeks since it was discovered in the country. Experts predict Omicron will become the dominant variant by 2022.
Mr. Burton said that having two variants circulating at the same time increases the risk of them swapping genes and combining to form a new, more dangerous variant.
“In the past, there have been some papers in South Africa about the Covid-19 pandemic suggesting that people with compromised immune systems can have both variants. This is also possible in the UK, especially in the UK. given the number of cases we’re seeing,” Burton added.
Asked if this could lead to a more dangerous variant forming, Mr Burton said: “Certainly it can, I think that’s what we’re going to have to be prepared for. It certainly creates an opportunity for two variants to combine, share and swap genes.”
To date, the UK has recorded 4,713 Omicron infections and this variant accounts for about a fifth of the total number of Covid-19 cases nationwide.