In October 2021, researchers found a new variant of the COVID-19 virus in France. However, the World Health Organization (WHO) does not think that the variant is cause for concern.
The variant is called B.1.640.2 or IHU (after Institut Hospitalier Universitaire in Marseilles, one of the places where it was identified).
Only a few samples of the new variant have been identified through genetic sequencing. All were recorded in the first weeks after the variant was found. Since December 2021, only one sample has been found.
The new variant was first identified in a vaccinated person who had come back to southern France after traveling to Cameroon. Health officials in Cameroon are monitoring for the new variant, but that does not mean that the variant came from Cameroon or somewhere else in central Africa.
According to a January 7 report on the German news site DW, 11 other people got sick with the variant and all of them were linked to the traveler in whom it was first found.
The new variant is getting a lot of media attention because it was spotted in France the same week that the Omicron variant was officially identified there. Omicron has been surging in France since then, with hundreds of thousands of new cases caused by it being diagnosed each week.
Variants of the COVID virus are popping up all the time, but many of them disappear quickly. Some variants will spread, but not very fast. Other variants become more of a problem because they are easily transmissible, rapid spreaders—like Delta and Omicron.
“All of a sudden, we're engulfed in one of them. And others just sort of fizzle out. We don't always know why,” Gregory Poland, MD, Professor of Medicine and Infectious Diseases at the Mayo Clinic, the founder and director of the Mayo Vaccine Research Group, and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Vaccines, told Verywell.
“I would want to be careful of equating it or judging it against Omicron—only because Omicron is so wickedly transmissible,” said Poland. “So, is this more akin to Beta, or Gamma, or even Alpha? We don't know yet.”
According to Poland, early data show that the new variant is not spreading very far at the moment—but that could change. We also don't know if the currently available COVID vaccines can protect against the B.1.640.2 variant.
“It's impossible to know at this point. WHO is of course, as they always do, trying to calm fears by saying we're not concerned at this point,” said Poland. “That's always premature and doesn't lead to trust.”
If a new variant is thought to be more dangerous, the WHO labels it as a "variant of concern." That step has not been taken for B.1.640.2 yet.
Abdi Mahmud, a COVID incident manager with the WHO, told reporters that the B.1.640.2 variant is being tracked by the health agency. However, it has not spread widely over the last few weeks, even though it "has had a lot of chances to pick up."
It could also be that the variant has been spreading—it's just not being identified widely.
“Spread can be happening, and changes can be occurring sort of below the radar," said Poland, adding that if only 1% or less of viral samples are sequenced, then the viral spread might not be recognized.
That could partly be because genetic sequencing is not being done very much. According to Poland, about 20 samples of the new variant have been sequenced so far. By contrast, 120,000 sequences of the Omicron variant have been uploaded to WHO's GISAID database since the variant was added in November 2021.
While the B.1.640.2 variant is not spreading rapidly right now, there are still some concerns about it emerging. A recent study that has yet to undergo peer review found that the variant has 46 genetic mutations and 36 deletions, making it quite different from the original COVID virus. That said, the Omicron variant also has many mutations and deletions—and it is spreading fast.
Poland said that transmissibility is only indirectly linked to the number of gene mutations or deletions in a variant. He adds that when a new variant is first found, we cannot know for sure whether it's going to spread faster than others—or just disappear.
“We can create an understanding for why something like Omicron is so transmissible now that we know it's so transmissible," said Poland. "But in advance, we probably wouldn't have been able to do that."
In October 2021, a new COVID variant (B.1.640.2) was found in France. As of early January 2022, the World Health Organization (WHO) has not deemed B.1.640.2 as a "variant of concern."