Scientists are still studying a new variant of Covid-19, first detected in France last year, to see if it could become a “worrying” variant, as strains like Delta and Omicron have previously done.
However, previous analysis by experts suggests that this is not a cause for concern at this time.
The new B.1.640.2 variant, unofficially named IHU – in reference to the research group at the IHU Mediterranee Infection Institute in Marseille that is studying it – has so far infected 12 people living in south-eastern France.
However, geneticist Professor Francis Balloux of University College London said it is not currently linked to an increase in cases or hospitalizations in France.
The first case of IHU was linked to someone who recently traveled to Cameroon, West Africa, for a three-day trip, the group of scientists said in a paper about their findings published on health science website medRxiv.
Apart from the 12 infections, there are currently no other known cases of the IHU variant, which was first recorded in the variant tracking database GISAID on November 4th, in the region where it was found, in France or in any other country.
In their analysis, the authors described it as “a new variant of probably Cameroonian origin”, although it is not yet known for sure where IHU actually came from.
While new Covid strains are being found all the time, experts said this particular strain has raised eyebrows due to the fact that it has 46 mutations, which may make it more resistant to the vaccines currently being administered.
The authors added in their analysis that the mutations had not been detected in other countries and that the person first identified with IHU was fully vaccinated against Covid.
The pending peer-review study also found that the new variant spike protein carries 14 amino acid substitutions, including N501Y and E484K, and nine deletions.
The majority of vaccines used worldwide target the spike protein of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid – and both the N501Y and E484K mutations have previously been identified in the beta, gamma, theta and and omicron variants of coronavirus found.
“These data are another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of Sars-CoV-2 variants and their introduction into a specific geographic area from abroad,” said the scientists studying the new variant.
They added that “the subsequent detection … of three mutations in the spike gene to screen for variants … did not match the pattern of the delta variant implicated in almost all Sars-CoV-2 infections at the time.” .
This underlines the importance of “genomic surveillance” in the fight against Covid.
While experts are working hard to determine whether IHU is likely to become a “variant of concern,” one epidemiologist said its discovery alone doesn’t mean it will be as dangerous as other strains.
“What makes a variant more well-known and more dangerous is its ability to multiply based on the number of mutations it has compared to the original virus,” said Eric Feigl-Ding, a member of the Federation of American Scientists, in a long Speech Twitter thread last week.
“It remains to be seen which category this new variant falls into.”
Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization (WHO) infectious disease epidemiologist, tweeted about the variant yesterday and said it had been flagged as a “variant under surveillance” by the WHO that same month.
The classification meant it was defined as a variant with “genetic alterations suspected to affect virus properties, with some evidence that they may pose a future risk, but evidence of phenotypic or epidemiological implications is unclear at this time.” “.
Meanwhile, virologist Tom Peacock of Imperial College London’s Department of Infectious Disease said the variant had “a good chance of causing trouble but never really materialized”.
He added: “Definitely nobody worth worrying too much about right now.”
The latest discovery of a variant comes amid a global surge in cases due to Omicron, with at least 24 NHS trusts in England reporting critical incidents in a bid to deal with “unprecedented” staff shortages caused by the Covid-related illness.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been warned that he may have to impose tougher measures, but he and his cabinet are currently sticking to the message that “Plan B is working”.