During an international health crisis involving the highly infectious Omicron strain of COVID, French scientists discovered another strain of the virus that contains 46 mutations.
The B.1.640.2 strain, known as IHU, has infected 12 people living in southeastern France so far. In a paper published on medRxiv, researchers said that the first case appeared after the patient came back from Cameroon. According to the authors, the person who was diagnosed with the IHU variant was fully vaccinated. The genomes were sequenced using next-generation sequencing technology.
Experts have pointed out that the fresh discovery of IHU does not mean that it would prove as infectious as other strains. They found “46 mutations” in the analysis, however, it has not been identified as a ‘variant under investigation’ by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The authors of the study stated that “subsequent detection… of three mutations in the spike gene to screen for variants… did not correspond to the pattern of the Delta variant implicated in almost all SARS-CoV-2 infections at that time”. By arguing that the emergence of the variant highlights the necessity of “genomic surveillance”, the authors said their observations illustrate the “unpredictability of the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants”.
According to the WHO, the variant was first detected in November and would have picked up had there been enough opportunities. Additionally, the health agency assured that the variant has been on their radar since then. Since Omicron has already been prevalent for some months, scientists feel that it is a greater threat than IHU because it is spreading at an alarming rate.
Having seen the evidence for the moment, scientist Vinod Scaria of Delhi’s Institute of Genomic and Integrative Biology tweeted, “Nothing to panic or worry too much (about) at the moment. But clearly something that needs to be watched closely in the coming weeks.”
According to outbreak.info, this variant was last detected on December 25. After that, no new cases were found in the global database. However, back in November, the WHO classified B.1.640 as a ‘variant under monitoring’, which is a subcategory of a variant deemed to be worth observing.
According to a long thread on Twitter, epidemiologist and fellow at Federation of American Scientists Eric Feigl-Ding said that the variant is being monitored to determine how infectious or dangerous it might be. As he says, “There are scores of new variants discovered all the time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re more dangerous.”
He continued, “What makes a variant more well-known and dangerous is its ability to multiply because of the number of mutations it has in relation to the original virus. This is when it becomes a ‘variant of concern’ – like Omicron, which is more contagious and more past immunity evasive. It remains to be seen in which category this new variant will fall.”