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January 7, 2022

The IHU variant: What you need to know

Daily Briefing

    A newly detected coronavirus variant, called IHU, was found in a small number of patients in France. And while some are concerned by IHU's number of mutations, experts say "it is too early to speculate" about its potential threat.

    What is the IHU variant?

    The IHU variant, officially known as B.1.640.2, was named by researchers who discovered it in a male patient at the Méditerranée Infection University Hospital Institute (IHU) in France. The variant was identified in October and uploaded to the Global Initiative on Sharing Avian Influenza Data (GISAID) Covid-19 database in November, according to the New York Times.

    In late December, IHU researchers published a report in medRXiv on 12 patients who had tested positive for the variant. According to the report, the index case was vaccinated and had recently traveled back to France from Cameroon. Within three days of his return, the patient developed mild respiratory symptoms.

    Researchers discovered 46 mutations and 37 deletions in the new variant, with 14 amino acid substitutions and 12 deletions in the spike protein, MedPage Today reports.

    A 'variant under monitoring'

    The World Health Organization (WHO) said the variant "has been on [its] radar," but clarified that it is not considered a variant of interest or concern. The organization classified B.1.640.2 as a "variant under monitoring" after the first sequence was submitted to GISAID.

    And while researchers were concerned about how the number of mutations would affect the variant's transmissibility, it hasn't been detected outside the southern Alps region of France.

    Since its discovery, "[t]hat virus had a lot of chances to pick up," said Abdi Mahamud, incident manager for the WHO's COVID-19 Incident Management Support Team.

    Similarly, Tom Peacock, a virologist at Imperial College in London, tweeted that, so far, "this virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised."

    Separately, University of Texas School of Public Health epidemiology professor Katelyn Jetelina, said, "It hasn't done much." She added, "We are not worried about it at this time."

    As of this week, around 20 samples of the IHU variant have been sequenced—and only one since the beginning of December, the New York Times reports.

    In comparison, since the omicron variant was uploaded to GISAID on Nov. 23, there have been more than 120,000 sequences in the database, although most cases have not been sequenced, the Times reports. According to WHO, the omicron variant has been identified in at least 128 countries, and is driving record-high case numbers across the world.

    While some experts have said that they know too little about the IHU variant to make assumptions about the exact course it will take, others believe that new variants are to be expected as Covid-19 continues to spread—and not all of them will gain the kind of traction seen with the omicron variant.

    For instance, Julie Swann, a professor at North Carolina State University who studies pandemic modeling and health systems, said, "I would expect additional variants to arise that are related to omicron in some ways but different in others." She added, "It remains to be seen what that would mean for real-world spread."

    Ultimately, IHU researchers wrote, "It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological, or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases." (Bengali, New York Times, 1/5; Basen, MedPage Today, 1/5; Rodriguez, USA Today, 1/5)

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