Many were concerned to hear of a new coronavirus variant identified in France. The IHU variant, so named after the research institute in Marseille, France, where it was first identified, may not be as big a cause for concern as previous variants.
The New York Times reported the response of a COVID incident manager with the World Health Organization (WHO), which indicated that this newly detected variant of the coronavirus appears to pose a minimal threat. Compared with the omicron variant, the IHU variant seems to be moving slowly.
What to know about the COVID variant in France
As the CDC explains, “Viruses constantly change through mutation and sometimes these mutations result in a new variant of the virus. Some variants emerge and disappear while others persist.” The world has seen this occur throughout the pandemic, with plenty of variants we don’t hear much about, along with rapidly spreading COVID-19 variants like delta and omicron.
The latest COVID-19 variant to gain global attention is B.1.640.2, which was first identified in Oct. 2021. On Nov. 4, the variant was uploaded to a database for disease variants, Gisaid. This means that the WHO has been aware of and monitoring this variant for approximately two months, during which the variant hasn’t spread widely.
A research paper that has not yet undergone peer review noted that the new IHU variant was first detected in southeastern France, in someone who had recently traveled to Cameroon and who was vaccinated. This paper was published on a preprint server, MedRXiv.
Researchers who say the IHU variant is not a major concern
Although the WHO hasn’t issued an official statement about this new variant, Abdi Mahmud of the WHO told reporters in Geneva this week that the IHU variant didn’t appear to have spread widely in the two months since its identification.
Other independent researchers aren't deeply concerned about the IHU variant of the coronavirus. As Imperial College London virologist Tom Peacock,tweeted, this variant is “not one worth worrying about too much,” reported Newsweek.
The IHU variant compared with omicron
As The New York Times has reported, only about 20 samples of the IHU variant have been sequenced since its uploading to the database on Nov. 4. In contrast, the omicron variant was first added to Gisaid on Nov. 23 and has over 120,000 sequences in the database.
The IHU variant has had a bit more time to spread than the omicron variant but hasn't gained the same momentum. As COVID incident manager Abdi Mahmud has pointed out, “The virus has had a lot of chances to pick up.”
Concern was initially high about the IHU variant because of reports that it contains 46 mutations from the original coronavirus. The omicron variant also contains a large number of mutations (about 50, The New York Times reports), which many researchers believe contributes to its high transmissibility.
The omicron variant, not the variant from France, is currently the dominant variant of COVID-19. It has been identified in at least 128 countries and in all 50 U.S. states plus the District of Columbia.