2022 has barely begun and is already delivering up similar horrors to that of its younger siblings. A new COVID variant has been discovered in France that has researchers concerned as it exhibits far more mutations than even the omicron variant that is currently sweeping Australia.
It’s known as the IHU variant at present, as it was first identified by researchers at the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute — or ‘IHU’ in English. Genetically, it’s been given the code B.1.640.2, meaning it’s at least three steps removed from the original COVID virus.
A study in France has found that the IHU variant has infected 12 people in the Alps region in the south of the country and that, concerningly, the new variant has 46 different mutations in its genetic code as well as 37 deletions. These changes mainly affect the spike protein outer casing of the virus, altering its transmisability.
The good news is that the IHU variant was discovered back in November, around the same time as omicron, and so far has not managed to spread beyond a small part of France. The fact that it has not become dominant or anywhere near as prevalent as omicron or delta in that time frame should give us a good indication of just how transmissible it is, although researchers are still working on it.
The World Health Organisation, at a briefing in Geneva on Tuesday, confirmed that B.1.640.2 has been on their radar since November but that it is yet to become a variant of concern or of interest.
“That virus had a lot of chances to pick up,” Abdi Mahamud, incident manager for the WHO’s COVID-19 Incident Management Support Team, told the press conference. However, he did not appear too concerned about the virus, suggesting that if it hadn’t prompted a rise in cases, it’s nothing to be too worried about as of yet.
The WHO and various other organisations around the world are keeping a close on COVID mutations and there are literally hundreds on the COV-lineages website that you can scroll through. Of these, only five are considered variants of concern while two others are considered variants of interest.
The WHO’s list of variants under monitoring includes three other variants, including the IHU variant. These are typically heavily mutated forms of the virus that could pose a threat and the WHO is keeping a close eye on them to monitor for outbreaks.
So, while a highly mutated variant is always a concern, the fact that the top global health authority is not too concerned about it and are watching for developments should give us a good indication that this really isn’t anything to panic about. If the virus does start spreading rapidly, which is unlikely given the time frame in which it has had to do that so far, we’ll certainly keep you updated.