What we know about the 'new' Covid variant detected in southern France

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What we know about the 'new' Covid variant detected in southern France
A health worker prepares to sequence Covid samples at the IHU in Marseille. Little is known about the new variant discovered there. (Photo by Christophe SIMON / AFP)

A Covid variant was that was sequenced in the southern French city of Marseille has been hitting the headlines - but is it actually dangerous? Or even new?


Is it new?

The variant - officially known as B.1.640.2 - was first identified in Marseille in November, and recorded as a new variant on December 9th.

That's actually the same week as the first Omicron cases were recorded in France - although it's likely that Omicron was present in France before it was formally identified.

What is it?

The Institut Hospitalo-Universitaire in Marseille - the former workplace of controversial Professor Didier Raoult - was where the sequencing (mapping out of the strain's genetic composition) took place. 

It has been informally dubbed the IHU variant after the Institute, and internet users have joked that it is the 'I Hate U' variant.

A non-peer reviewed study from the institute identified 46 mutations in this variant compared to the original Covid-19 virus, 23 or which were located at the spike protein - a crucial spot when it comes to the virus's ability to attack human cells. 

Where is it from?

Just because this new strain was discovered in France does not necessarily mean that this is where it first emerged - it could just be a sign that France has a relatively developed testing and sequencing infrastructure. 

The first detected case in France was in a traveller who had recently returned from the DRC. 11 other people, all linked to the traveller, were also discovered to have the new variant.

Since then the vast majority of cases so far have been detected in France, although dozens have also been detected in the DRC and the UK, as well as a handful elsewhere in Africa, North America, Europe and South Asia. 

The B.1.640.2 strain currently accounts for well under 1 percent of Covid cases in the country, amounting to hundreds of cases according to the country's public health agency

How dangerous is it?

"It is too early to speculate on the virological, epidemiological or clinical characteristics of this variant," wrote the authors of the study at IHU.

But the limited spread so far is an encouraging sign. The IHU variant accounts for less than one percent of cases in France, while the Omicron variant has gone on to become the dominant strain in France, overtaking Delta.

The World Health Organization has downplayed concerns over the variant. Abdi Mahamud, a WHO incident manager on Covid, told a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday that it "has been on our radar," but noted that it hadn't proved much of a threat. 


Santé Publique France said back in December that a "reinforced epidemiological study" was underway to "evaluate the characteristics of this variant and its impact on public health". 

France remains in the grip of a huge wave of Covid cases, largely driven by the Omicron variant. On Tuesday the French government released figures showing a record 271,686 Covid cases in a 24 hour period. 

Since the start of the pandemic, the World Health Organisation has argued that new variants are less likely to emerge in places where vaccination coverage is lowest - hence the need to vaccines to be distributed equally between developed and developing countries.



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