As the weather grows colder in Iran, the official figures indicate that flu cases are on the rise as usual. Simultaneously the spread of the Omicron variant has prompted as-yet unfounded rumors on Persian-language social media and in the media about the emergence of a “super-virus”.
Some users are calling it “Flurona”: a combination of flu and coronavirus. Others are talking about “Delmicron”, a blend of Delta and Omicron variants. There is no scientific evidence for this but the idea has gained currency in Iran; even officials have issued scattered statements supporting the theory.
In Mazandaran, Mohammad Reza Haghshenas, director of the province’s coronavirus test lab, said on January 13 that he was aware of 10 people in the province afflicted by a mixture of flu and coronavirus.
Earlier Dr. Alireza Naji, a faculty member of Shahid Beheshti University of Medical Sciences, used the term “Delmicron” to describe “a combination of the Delta and Omicron variants” that, he said, had been identified in Europe and in the US.
IranWire spoke to Mahan Ghafari, an epidemiology and virology research assistant with the University of Oxford in England. In no uncertain terms, Ghafari said these theories were unscientific and not in line with what is known about the way viruses behave. “Even before the pandemic, we saw variants of the flu virus in fall and in winter,” he told IranWire. “Since the pandemic started, there have been warnings that the simultaneous spread of coronavirus and flu could increase pressure on hospitals.
“During the first fall and winter of the pandemic, many countries imposed lockdowns and restrictions so we didn’t see widespread outbreaks of the flu virus. Now that various countries, including Iran, have lifted restrictions, flu outbreaks are more likely to happen. In these conditions, both coronavirus and flu can spread at the same time.
“But to say that an individual being infected by both of these viruses can create a new ‘combination virus’ is not valid. ‘Flurona’ has no scientific basis.”
Is Omicron Now the Dominant Strain in Iran?
The Ministry of Health confirmed the first case of Omicron in Iran on December 19 of last year. But Dr. Hamid Soori, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s Operations Center, told IranWire that Omicron would have come to Iran some time before that date. “Unfortunately, Iran has no system in place with which to screen for new variants,” he said, “and that’s why we are going to learn by chance if and when a new variant has entered the country.”
According to official reports by the Health Ministry and the universities of medical sciences, Omicron is not currently known to be the dominant variant in many Iranian provinces. Reports from other countries, however, indicate Omicron takes over within about two weeks of coming to a given community. The lack of testing capacity in Iran means this could still be the case.
Mahan Ghafari told IranWire: “The rise in the number of [Omicron] cases has happened both in countries with extensive vaccinations, and in countries where Delta was the dominant strain. It’s likely that Iran will be in a similar situation soon.
“In Iran, they generally don’t test people who have low-level symptoms or are asymptomatic. They test only when a person has extreme symptoms and may need to be hospitalized. As a result, new waves in the epidemic may only be announced after a few weeks’ delay.”
Testing deficiencies, Ghafari says, also mean that the real state of affairs in Iran will be different to the figures published by the Ministry of Health: both in terms of infections and deaths from Covid-19.
Would Omicron Create a Sixth Wave?
Dr. Payam Tabarsi, a member of the National Coronavirus Taskforce’s scientific committee, has also acknowledged that Iran’s official statistics about Omicron are not reliable. Many more people are likely to be infected than the official figures suggest, he said: “We could see a new peak within two to three weeks.”
Dr. Hossein Kermanpour, director of emergency services at Tehran’s Sina Hospital, has an alternative explanation for low levels of Omicron detected so far: “delays to vaccinations”. By pure chance, he said, ramped-up vaccinations in Iran coincided with the end of the Delta variant surge in the country. As a result, when Omicron arrived, more Iranians had antibodies in their systems and a higher degree of resistance to this variant than many European and American citizens, who had been vaccinated months before.
He warned, however, that the danger from Omicron was very real and Iranians shouldn’t ignore health protocols just because they had received two jabs.
Official Coronavirus Statistics
According to the Health Ministry’s weekly statistics, a total of 200 people are known to have lost their lives to Covid-19 in the week ending January 13. With 37 deaths, January 10 had the highest officially-recorded number of fatalities for the week.
At the week’s end, 1,462 Covid-19 patients in Iran were being treated in ICUs. According to the Health Ministry, at the time of writing the total number of vaccine doses injected had reached 124,970,698.