New novel coronavirus variant reported in 12 cases from southern France has 46 mutations

At least 12 people test positive for the virus with this new variant, called IHU; too early to comment on its virological, epidemiological or clinical features, say scientists   

By Taran Deol
Published: Tuesday 04 January 2022

As the world grapples to fight a massive uptick in novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cases caused by the new variant of concern omicron, southern France has reported another variant. At least 12 people tested positive for the virus with this new variant, called IHU, that purportedly has “atypical combination.”

The IHU variant is said to have 46 mutations and 37 deletions, according to scientists at the IHU Mediterranee Infection, Marseille, France.

The index case — the first identified case of this variant — had returned from Cameroon in Central Africa. His sample was collected in mid-November 2021. He was vaccinated against the virus and had mild respiratory symptoms the day before diagnosis, said scientists in a preprint yet to be peer-reviewed.

“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,” French scientists at the IHU Mediterranee Infection in Marseille said.

The variant can be detected via shortcut tests through a polymerase chain reaction analysis, according to the study. This is good news because genome sequencing traditionally takes time, making it harder to gauge the spread and severity of the disease.

“It is too early to speculate on the virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases,” the study said. No other country has reported this variant so far.

SARS-CoV-2 is a ribonucleic acid (RNA) virus; it is in its nature to mutate. It remains to be seen which category of variant IHU falls under, based on its characteristics. It will be declared a variant of concern (VoC) if one or all of the following are true: It is more infectious, more virulent and evades vaccine immune response, treatments and diagnostics put in place till now.

Since the first case was reported in China in late 2019, five variants of concern have been identified by the World Health Organization. These are: Alpha, first found in the United Kingdom in September 2020; Beta, found in South Africa in May 2020; Gamma, found in Brazil in November 2020; Delta, found in India in October 2020; and most recently, Omicron, found in multiple countries in November 2021.

There are also two variants of interest — Lambda which was found in Peru in December 2020 and Mu found in Colombia in January 2021.

Several other variants are currently under monitoring while countless more have emerged but are not a cause for concern.

The delta variant has been the most dominant since its detection in late 2020 and all through 2021, causing deadly waves across regions, most notably in India where the healthcare system crumbled. The lambda variant is dominant in South America.

Omicron, however, has been replacing its predecessors at a rampant speed in nearly every country it has been reported in so far. The VoC is more transmissible than delta and can evade immunity, therefore causing breakthrough infections.

France has been contributing to most of Europe’s daily infections; The country recorded more than 200,000 cases for the fourth straight day on January 1, 2022. It became the sixth country to record over 10 million COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic.

A closer look at province-wise data from Public Health France shows hospitalisation per capita is the highest in southeast France. Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur has the highest deaths per 100,000 at 0.48.

The French health minister, however, has maintained that the delta variant is behind the surge in cases.

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