Coronavirus: New highly mutated COVID-19 variant detected in France

Another new variant of COVID-19 with dozens of mutations has been discovered, this time in France.

IHU, as it's been dubbed, has the N501Y mutation also found in the Alpha, Beta, Omicron and Gamma variants, which makes it more infectious, and the E484K mutation found in Gamma and Beta, which helps the virus evade people's immunity., as well as numerous other changes. 

It was found in a dozen patients living in Forcalquier, southern France. The index case was a man who'd recently been to Cameroon, central Africa, which - like much of the region - has incredibly low vaccination coverage, making it easier for variants to emerge. 

He was vaccinated, but tested positive for the virus in mid-November, PCR tests showing it had an "atypical combination" of mutations which looked nothing like the Delta variant, dominant at the time. 

"Respiratory samples collected from seven other SARS-CoV-2-positive patients living in the same geographical area exhibited the same combination of mutations," a paper published online reads. 

The scientists dubbed it IHU, naming it after the institution where they work, IHU Méditerranée-Infection. Formally it's known as B.1.640.2, which shows where it sits on the evolutionary tree. 

The World Health Organization has yet to declare it a variant of interest or concern or give it a Greek letter name. At the time the scientists' paper was published, there had been just 12 cases found. 

"It is too early to speculate on virological, epidemiological or clinical features of this IHU variant based on these 12 cases," the scientists said, calling it "another example of the unpredictability of the emergence of SARS-CoV-2 variants".

Experts doubt whether IHU could pose a wider threat. Epidemiologist Eric Feigl-Ding, who was one of the first to publicly predict SARS-CoV-2 would result in a pandemic, noted ICU admissions in France seemed to be rising fastest in the area where IHU has been found. 

"It's a signal we need to watch what is happening there more carefully," he tweeted, adding that it will have a tough time displacing the super-contagious Omicron and deadlier Delta variants. 

Imperial College virologist Tom Peacock pointed out the first detection of B.1.640.2 predated the discovery of Omicron by nearly three weeks.

"This virus has had a decent chance to cause trouble but never really materialised (as far as we can tell at least)," he wrote. "If B.1.640.2 was a genuine threat its had quite a bit of time to demonstrate that, but never really got out the starting block - it looks a lot like a dud variant… obviously should be continued to be monitored though."