IHU variant: How dangerous is the new Covid strain compared to Omicron and where has it spread?

Scientists have been looking at a new strain of Covid-19, first discovered in France last year, to see if it could become a “worrying variant” in the same way Delta and Omicron did before it.

However, expert analysis so far suggests that this is not currently a cause for undue concern.

Unofficially called IHU – in a nod to the IHU Méditerranée Infection institute in Marseille, the establishment where it is being studied -, the new B.1.640.2 variant has so far infected 12 people living in the South-East of France.

However, University College London geneticist Professor Francis Balloux is not currently linked to a spike in cases or hospitalizations in France.

Where does the IHU come from?

The first case was linked to a person who had recently traveled to Cameroon in West Africa for a three-day trip, the group of scientists said in an article about their findings published on the life sciences website. health. medRxiv.

Apart from the 12 infections, there are currently no other known cases of the IHU variant – which was first recorded on the GISAID variant tracking database on November 4 – or in the region where it was found, neither in France nor in any other country. .

In their analysis, the authors described it as “a new variant of probably Cameroonian origin”, although it is not yet clear where the IHU actually originated.

What’s unique about it?

While new strains of Covid are being discovered all the time, experts said this one in particular has raised eyebrows due to the fact that it has 46 mutations, which may make it more resistant to currently administered vaccines.

The authors added in their analysis that the mutations had not been spotted in other countries and that the person who was first identified with IHU was fully vaccinated against Covid.

In the yet-to-be-peer-reviewed study, it was also revealed that the new variant’s spike protein carries 14 amino acid substitutions, including N501Y and E484K, and nine deletions.

The majority of vaccines used around the world target the spike protein of Sars-CoV-2 – the virus that causes Covid – and N501Y and E484K mutations have already been found in the Beta, Gamma, Theta and Omicron variants of the coronavirus.

“These data are another example of the unpredictability of Sars-CoV-2 variants emerging and being introduced into a given 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 nearly all Sars-CoV-2 infections at this time.”

This, they said, underscored the importance of “genomic surveillance” in the fight against Covid.

What do the scientists say?

While experts remain hard at work determining whether IHU is likely to become a “variant of concern”, one epidemiologist has said his discovery alone does not mean it will be as dangerous as other strains.

“What makes a variant more well-known and dangerous is its ability to multiply due to 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 Twitter thread last week.

“It remains to be seen which category this new variant will fall into.”

Maria Van Kerkhove, the World Health Organization (WHO) infectious disease epidemiologist, tweeted about the variant to say that it had been marked as a “variant under surveillance” by the WHO over the course of of the same month.

The classification meant that it had been defined as a variant with “genetic changes suspected of affecting the characteristics of the virus with some indications that it may pose a future risk, but evidence of a phenotypic or epidemiological impact is not currently available. unclear”.

Meanwhile, virologist Tom Peacock from the Department of Infectious Diseases at Imperial College London, said the variant had “a decent chance of causing problems but never really materialised”.

He added: “There isn’t one worth worrying too much about right now.”

For now, Omicron remains the main variant of concern across the world, although cases in the UK appear to be falling after climbing in the new year, prompting WHO special envoy the Dr David Nabarro, to tell Sky News there is “light at the end of the tunnel”.

“I think it’s going to be bumpy before we get to the end,” he said, qualifying his optimism somewhat, and adding, “While it’s possible to start imagining that the end of the pandemic isn’t far away, just everyone be ready for the possibility that there are more variations and mutations to come, or that there are other challenges, even more Omicron pushes to come .

Leonardo Martinez, an infectious disease epidemiologist at Boston University, also told the AP, “The faster Omicron spreads, the more opportunity there is for mutation, potentially leading to more variants.”

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