The discovery of the new variant, named IHU, comes as the UK battles with soaring case numbers, which has led to mass Covid-related staff shortages and put huge pressure on the NHS.
How many IHU cases have been reported?
The discovery was announced in a paper, published on medRxiv on 29 December after experts at IHU Mediterranee Infection identified the variant on 10 December 2021 near Marseille, France, and named it “variant IHU”.
The variant has not yet been detected in any other country than France so far, and it is not currently under investigation by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
A total of 12 cases of the IHU, or B.1.640.2, variant have been detected to date, all based in southeastern France.
The first case was linked to someone with a travel history to Cameroon, according to researchers at IHU Mediterranee Infection.
The paper states: “The index case was an adult first diagnosed as infected with SARS-CoV-2 by real time reverse transcription PCR (qPCR) performed in a private medical biology laboratory on a nasopharyngeal sample collected mid-November 2021.
“He was vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2 and returned from a travel to Cameroon three days before. He developed mild respiratory symptoms the day before diagnosis. He lives in a small town of southeastern France.
“Subsequent detection by qPCR of three mutations in the spike gene to screen for variants, as systematically performed in France in case of SARS-CoV-2 positivity, revealed an atypical combination with L452R-negativity, E484K-positivity, and E484Q-negativity… that did not correspond to the pattern of the Delta variant involved in almost all SARS-CoV-2 infections at that time.”
There are currently no other known cases of the variant anywhere else in the world.
Is IHU resistant to vaccines?
The variant has been found to have “46 mutations”, according to researchers.
Tests have shown the variant carries the E484K mutation that is thought to make it more resistant to Covid-19 vaccines, as well as the N501Y mutation which experts believe can make it more transmissible.
The latter mutation was first seen on the Alpha variant, detected in the UK last year.
Could IHU be more transmissible than Omicron?
While early findings reveal that IHU has characteristics that could potentially make it spread more easily, researchers have said it is still too early to speculate about the variant’s effects given only 12 cases have been detected.
As yet, it does not appear that the variant is a major cause for concern and there is no evidence it is spreading as rapidly as Omicron so far. It is also not currently linked to an increase in Covid-19 cases or hospitalisations in France.
The researchers added: “Overall, these observations show once again the unpredictability of the emergence of new SARS-CoV-2 variants and their introduction from abroad, and they exemplify the difficulty to control such introduction and subsequent spread.
“They also warrant the implementation of genomic surveillance of SARS-CoV-2.”
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